Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Master Says 090

The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn't be in flashback.

Alain Resnais

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Master Says 089

A Little shoeshine boy never gets low down
But he's got the dirtiest job in town
Bendin' low at the peoples' feet
On the windy corner of the dirty street
Well, I asked him while he shined my shoes
How'd he keep from gettin' the blues
He grinned as he raised his little head
Popped a shoeshine rag and then he said

Get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
A jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine
It'll shake all the trouble from your worried mind
Get rhythm when you get the blues

Johnny Cash

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Master Says 088

Movie directors, or should I say people who create things, are very greedy and they can never be satisfied, ... That's why they can keep on working. I've been able to work for so long because I think next time, I'll make something good.

Akira Kurosawa

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Master Says 087

In theater, action is apt to be less a physical activity than a confrontation between characters, where the story progresses because of conflicts of personalities and verbal exchanges.
In film, what is happening now is likely to be less dramatically interesting than the action that may - or may not - be about to happen.

Alexander Mackendrick

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Altman Interview


The Stop Smiling Interview with Robert Altman

By James Hughes

Midway through Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, a bemused BBC reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin infiltrates the house party of Haven Hamilton, the crown jewel of Nashville’s music royalty. Regarding her majestic surroundings — a lush, tree-lined estate that looks more like a roadside stop from Wild Strawberries than the backwoods of Tennessee — Chaplin flatters her host by comparing the scene to a slice of Sweden’s premier auteur. “Bergman,” she cries. “Pure, unadulterated Bergman!” Taking one final glance at the locals — a honky-tonk group already tipsy on Jack Daniels — she revises her statement. “Of course the people are all wrong for Bergman, aren’t they?”

This small exchange, typically buried in a sound track dense with overlapping dialogue, encapsulates the essence of Robert Altman. His films have a European sensibility that echoes both the grandeur and the interior anguish of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. But the characters Altman chooses to occupy these arenas are quintessentially American. Faithful to his ever expanding stable of actors (Shelly Duvall, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin and Elliott Gould among them) Altman explores the lives of real people living in the forgotten recesses of a country often misrepresented by an overexposure of the two coasts. For over 50 years, Altman has created a cinematic landscape that stems from the heartland and branches out to every corner of the map: from the hazy Southwestern sprawl of California Split and 3 Women, through the clutter of Texas (Brewster McCloud and Dr. T and the Women) and quaintness of Kansas City, all the way up the bustling eastern seaboard, where the fictional presidential candidate Jack Tanner shamelessly canvassed for votes in ’88.

Robert Altman was born in Kansas City in 1925. After serving overseas in World War II, he returned to the Midwest and worked on industrial films for the Calvin Co. of Kansas City, eventually landing in the director’s chair for television series as diverse as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Bonanza.” With the success of MASH in 1970, Altman was tossed the keys to Hollywood’s most coveted projects, but chose instead to champion more personal films. Despite his continuous critical acclaim, he remains in the distinguished company of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and King Vidor — all Best Director nominees shut out five times by the Academy. But Altman seems unaffected by the allure of awards, and even more so by the demands and labels of the press. As Philip Marlowe would mumble in Altman’s exquisite adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, “It’s okay with me.”

Fresh off a rebirth from Gosford Park in 2002, which catapulted him back into the public eye with the same force as The Player in 1991, Altman has recently seen some of his greatest unreleased works preserved on DVD, and he now embraces digital technology. His last two features — The Company and the just-wrapped A Prairie Home Companion — were shot on high-definition video. And, as Altman reveals from his well-equipped production office in Midtown Manhattan, he’s not surprised to see film become a thing of the past.

Stop Smiling: The film that you’ve just wrapped, A Prairie Home Companion, isn’t a documentary about the making of Garrison Keillor’s radio show, it’s a narrative that uses the show and its theater as a setting?

Robert Altman: Yes, it’s a drama about the demise of the radio show. The penultimate scene has Kevin Kline at the piano while the stage is being demolished.

SS: How was it working with Garrison Keillor?

RA: It was pretty good. It was tough on him — he’s been in charge for 30 years. This is the first time he’s done anything in which he is the content. And he’s always dealt in radio, so I had to put pictures up there. I have to give the audience something to look at. We could’ve shot the Keillor picture anywhere, but it was easier for all of us to shoot it in St. Paul, because that’s where it was based, and that stuff rubs off on you. It really rubs off on the people who live there and perform there. But we never left — we had two locations: a diner, which we shot in one night, and the rest of the time was all in the Fitzgerald Theater. We get a lot of cooperation in a city like St. Paul, because it’s a novelty to them, and they’re all very nice when you go to those small towns and small venues.

SS: Paul Thomas Anderson was brought on to be your back-up director. Did that work well?

RA: Yes. He was with me all the time. He’s a good friend of mine. I’m 80 years old. So they don’t insure me. On Gosford Park, which was the first time I did this, Stephen Frears was my stand-in. That’s all an insurance issue.

SS: How did you and P.T. Anderson meet?

RA: I’ve known Paul since he started, and he’s always been very generous about the origins of his work. Paul agreed to do it, which surprised and thrilled me. His girlfriend, Maya Rudolph, who was pregnant, was in the film as well. So that made things easier. It worked out well.

SS: There’s such a lack of regionalism in American entertainment today. You seem to be one of the few filmmakers who sets their films in smaller cities.

RA: I also try not to make all my films in Canada, and create that city that doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s dreadful what some filmmakers do. Most of my films I call arena films. I deal with a confined area — an arena — and I try to cover every aspect of it.

SS: You’ve had films set in larger cities like Los Angeles, but even then it’s treated almost like an alien environment.

RA: I’ve lived in New York for about 30 years, and I still meet people today who say, “Oh, you’re a Hollywood director.” That’s strange, because I’ve hardly ever made a film in that mold. I’ve never really been a New York director, either. That kind of mafia that runs New York, I never wanted to participate in that. As for Los Angeles, The Long Goodbye and California Split used that arena. Short Cuts was strictly L.A. I usually find that I don’t do road pictures; I need to have a cultural and geographical perimeter. Maybe that’s just the way I organize my thoughts, I need to contain them and contain my environment. Most of the time, it’s whatever interests me, whatever gets my attention at the time. It always ends up as the result of finding the right arena to do the film I’ve got in mind to do. The arena becomes a big part of it, because it fills the big part of it. I’ve done a lot pictures in small towns in the South. When you go to a unique area, I can do more with the stuff they have there. We try to use their culture, their colors, their music, their pride and prejudices.

SS: When the auteur theory came about in the mid-’60s, were you keeping an eye on how that movement was being shaped in the film journals overseas and then imported to the United States?

RA: I was focused on what I was doing and wanted to do. I was trying to make my own career and my own life’s work. Anything I felt helped in that area, I was interested in.

SS: Did the awakening of film writers and their duels in the press — Andrew Sarris battling Pauline Kael, for example — hold your attention at all?

RA: Pauline was a big help to me. She didn’t like a lot of my films. And when Pauline didn’t like my films, I didn’t like Pauline. When she did, I thought she was a genius. At times, I’d say, “What’s Kael going to think of this? What’s Judith Crist going to think of this?” The same is true today, because critics are the first press that you have to represent your work.

SS: So you took initial steps to guarantee that Kael would see your work early?

RA: Oh, yeah. She saw Nashville early. She jumped her deadline at The New Yorker, which helped cause a stir for the film. That was a controversy in itself. What she saw was the finished picture, although the story has it that what she saw was about three hours longer. There was some editing done on the picture since she saw it, but it was just tweaks. The critics were a force in the ’70s, but then the studio heads disappeared, so the filmmakers really were in charge. We could do pretty much what we wanted. I made Brewster McCloud at MGM — they couldn’t release it and they just dumped it, but the fact that it even got made is miraculous. Originally that script was terrible, and we reinvented it as we shot it. For me, the story has never been a concern. I like to literally save the idea, in a funny way. But at that time, I was being offered big, big movies, because it followed right after MASH. I said I didn’t want to make anything like that. I took a really low-budget project instead. I’ve done that all my life. If something works for you, you continue to do it. I did a bunch of pictures for 20th Century Fox when Alan Ladd was over there, but I set the budgets so low that they’d approve and I’d deliver the film. They would have no say in it, which is the kind of arrangement I liked.

SS: Was it your background in television and industrial films that kept you distanced from the theoretical side of filmmaking?

RA: I think it kept me more eclectic, in terms of venue and all that. I was always interested in shooting in places that I’d never been to before, and trying to use their assets. I find it hard to repeat myself, or consciously repeat myself. I can’t tell you how many times I was offered to do another MASH. I would always ask why. There was one, and that’s what I did. I despise the television show, because I think it was thematically the opposite of what the film was. For 12 years, it was about an Asian war. The enemy, no matter how you want to cut it or what platitudes you say, was always the guy with brown skin and narrow eyes.

SS: Were you constantly harassed during the reign of the show?

RA: I remember at my mother’s funeral, all of the ladies in the neighborhood in Kansas City baked some stuff. Afterward they caught me in the kitchen and said, “Oh, Mr. Altman. That MASH, we just love that.” I just said, “Oh, well. Thank you very much.” But they never saw what I did.

SS: When you were younger and watching films, did you keep track of directors and follow their releases?

RA: People have asked me throughout the years which directors have influenced me. I don’t know their names, because I was mostly influenced when I’d see a film and think, “Man, I want to be sure to never do anything like that.” So I never learned their names. It wasn’t a matter of copying or emulating somebody I admired. It was getting rid of a lot of stuff. I was impressed and affected by Bergman and Fellini and Kurosawa. My film Images was a big nod to Bergman, to Persona particularly. My whole sense of Kurosawa was light coming through trees, like in Rashomon. That film in particular was a favorite of mine. I liked a lot of the Italian films, some of the French. It went in circles — the British films were terrific for a while. There doesn’t seem to be room for everybody. Somebody comes in and occupies the art market, as I suppose it would be called, and then another group takes over.

SS: You once said, “The artist and the multitude are natural enemies.” How can you then explain working in so many popular mediums, like television, film, theater and opera?

RA: Opera cannot be considered a popular medium, and theater can hardly be, either. And most films can’t be. Television is still a popular medium. Movies are finished, aren’t they?

SS: You don’t just mean the steady decline of the box office?

RA: Just the general quality or character of the films being made. The marketing has always been to 14-year-old males. That’s one audience I’ve never had, or ever will have. Maybe it’s generational, maybe it’s just all past me and I don’t know it. But I just don’t see any films — or filmmakers, for that matter — coming along that interest me. I find the style of the films so silly. I’m surprised filmmakers can get away with all this. The corniness of most of these things — anyone who can even do it astonishes me.

SS: So it isn’t as much apathy from the audiences, it’s the fault of the filmmakers themselves?

RA: Well, no, the filmmakers are pushing themselves. It’s what they can get done, and now it’s all marketing. It went from the studio bosses ordering certain kinds of films to be made. Then the writers and filmmakers took over in the ’70s. The studio bosses disappeared. Then in the ’80s the agents started taking over. That was okay for a while. Then the marketing and advertising people took over, and now I don’t know who’s calling the shots. I don’t know any of the people who run the studios anymore. It’s pointless. What would I have to say to them anyway? We’re not in the same business. There’s no point in even getting in the same room together.

SS: Are you happy to reach an audience through whatever medium you can?

RA: When you go into opera and theater, you know you’re going into a limited stage, but it’s also a specialized stage. I don’t have to worry about the teenage boys anymore. But now we have a general level of intelligence in America that is considerably lower than it was 30 years ago. We’ve been dumbed down to a point where maybe some positive things will come around again, but I don’t even understand what they market as films these days. How do they do it? As I say, it’s probably me. I’m probably so out of touch with what’s going on.

SS: If there were a more thriving creative community in America, would film be the medium you would want to reach it through?

RA: Any kind of theater. Film is videotape now. There’s no need to use film anymore. You can use film to shoot your original material, and that film can be destroyed right after that, because it’s transferred to digital. At the end, when the digital is all dealt with, it’s put back to film. But that’s not the original film. The whole point of having to use film is because of the equipment that exists, and the egos of most of the artists, the cinematographers. If you took the top 10 cinematographers and I called them up, they’d say, “I’d love to work with you.” Then I’d say I wanted to shoot in high-def and they’d all say, “Oh, I don’t do that.” Well, why don’t they do that? It’s because they’ve made a big reputation by their manipulation of film. But film is just a medium. The picture that you see and the picture I see — how it gets from my mind to you, it’s of no consequence. It shouldn’t even be in the terms of discussion. I couldn’t have shot the Keillor picture, or The Company — the last two films I’ve made — on anything other than high-def. We shot Tanner on Tanner on regular video. We didn’t even get into high-def. The quality of the high-def can’t be beat. We were in this theater in St. Paul the whole time, and if you walked in there, you would not know that there was a motion picture going on, because you wouldn’t see any lights. You’d see a lot of cameras and cranes, but you wouldn’t see any lights.

SS: You’ve been burned more than anyone else by the effects of film deterioration — McCabe & Mrs. Miller being the obvious example. At the time you were making that film, it would’ve no doubt horrified you to think that, just a short time later, the original camera negative would be in such jeopardy.

RA: I was just on the edge of it. All of my films had been saved. There was a point when most of my films were not saved and couldn’t be, primarily because nobody knew who owned the negatives. It was only recently — because of Martin Scorsese and his film preservation efforts, along with a few things connected with some universities — where we went back and saved the films. They then go right onto video. But otherwise, if it hadn’t been for those efforts, you couldn’t see more than 10 of my films.

SS: As a format, DVD seems to be a particular lifesaver for you. Last year was a great year, in terms of previously unavailable films resurfacing. We saw Tanner ’88, Secret Honor, California Split and 3 Women.

RA: Oh, I know. And a lot of them weren’t out because of music clearances, or certain copyright problems. We had to make adjustments. The cost of the music track on California Split was so high that Columbia just couldn’t put it into video or DVD. That kept it out of circulation for years. Finally, Elliott Gould went in to find out why they weren’t releasing it. When they told him it was because of the music, he said, “Isn’t there something we can do about that?” So I made some cuts and took a couple of songs out. We got it into what they considered a reasonable budget. The picture wasn’t hurt by it. And that’s out now. It doesn’t make any difference, the quality of these things. It’s as good as anyone sees them. Most people see every film on a tiny screen. For me to go sit in a nice projection room and look at a screen where I get to move my head to see the full picture, that almost doesn’t exist anymore.

SS: Or it exists on a level where you almost don’t want to participate?

RA: Well, you just don’t have the opportunity that often. On Prairie Home Companion, we ran tests right off the bat. We took the tests down to a big art center in Minneapolis and ran the footage on an enormous screen. It’s breathtaking. But it’s hardly a big issue, because few people will see it under those circumstances. It’s a shame — although television is getting bigger and better, and screens are now a decent size. But you can’t just do a beautiful shot for the sake of making a beautiful shot. It no longer can really overwhelm.

SS: You certainly seized that opportunity when you had the chance. For example, on a film like The Long Goodbye, with its post-flashing of the negative, which led to stellar results.

RA: The flashing was a different kind of conceit. We were trying to not make Los Angeles look so pretty. We used a fog filter to destroy the image. Now the thing is to make everything as sharp as possible. But times change, tastes change. Eventually, people will see enough of that and want to start distressing the image. Already, the big problem is that it’s too sharp on too many plains. But I don’t think I would go back to film. Especially in the two years it took between The Company and this film, the technology has jumped 200 percent. Cameras don’t have to be the same size they used to be. They can just take a different card and put it in existing equipment and that upgrades it. When they get the equipment packaged down to the size of a Kodak box, the possibilities will really open.

SS: Would you steer younger filmmakers toward digital technology and encourage them to keep their eyes on the developments of high-definition video?

RA: Absolutely. Most of them do it, because it’s cheaper. But mainly they’re misinformed about film, and misinformed by their cinematographers, because these guys have made their reputation with film — they don’t want to just suddenly throw that out. But that’s always been the way. I remember when television started, and it was the first time Russell Metty and some of the other big cinematographers had to go over and do television. Oh, man, that was tough for them. “What do you mean, do a show in five days?” they’d say. It was degrading.

SS: What held your interest when you were younger, growing up in Kansas City? Were you tapped into the jazz scene?

RA: Yes, I was. I lived in Kansas City until I was 18 years old, then I went on to the Second World War. I came back and worked there for a little while. Early on, jazz was a big influence on me. We had a black maid who worked in our household. She helped take care of me. I remember she sat me down on a hassock in the living room and said, “Now, Bobby. You sit down here and you listen to this, because this is the best music there ever will be.” It was Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.” It was the first time I became aware of it, and the world that surrounded the music.

SS: How was your reception when you went back to your hometown to make the film Kansas City?

RA: They weren’t very impressed. Jesus never made it in his hometown, either, you know? I don’t know what that is. But after I’m dead and gone, they’ll laud me, all the people who don’t know me and wouldn’t have liked what I did. Kansas City, they hated that. I went back there and made a black picture and they didn’t approve.

SS: Was the starting point for the film an attempt to explore the jazz world?

RA: It was the time period, and the music — the pre-bebop time period. I was there then, and I used to go down to clubs when I was 14. They would sit me up in the balcony, or find some place for me. I had a couple friends, and we’d spend hours and hours in those places. It was a milieu we weren’t exposed to in any other way. But those musicians played at our high school dances and our proms and all that. We didn’t know their names, but we probably had big-name jazz players right in front of us.

SS: When you were discovering movies and jazz, did you have to go to those venues surreptitiously?

RA: The general group of people I went to school with didn’t do those types of things. A few of us would take off and ride the streetcar downtown and go to those joints, which were all in the same area. My friends and I became known, and these musicians were very generous and would allow us in.

SS: You’ve had that approach as well with your films, allowing people to participate and watch dailies with you.

RA: That was in the old days. We don’t do that anymore. Dailies don’t exist anymore now that we shoot high-def video. We shoot so much footage now that it would take too long to see it. It’s the thing I miss the most.

SS: When you assemble a large cast, as you so often do, do you rely heavily on a casting director?

RA: I never work with casting directors. There’s a person I use in New York now. There have been times when I’ve used them, but primarily I put the cast together. Rarely have I read people for roles. I have people in mind, and then we rewrite their part to fit that particular actor.

SS: Do your choices stem from personal connections to people?

RA: Yeah, or people I see. I just figure someone will be good for a particular part, or a particular kind of movie. Or some will get a movie made for you, so I talk myself into liking them. But in almost all cases they’ve enjoyed the experiences — I’ve got no actor complaints.

SS: Because of the freedom you give them?

RA: I don’t know. Maybe it’s just my good judgment. There can’t be a lot of freedom, because they come onto the set and I say, “We’re shooting this scene, where do you stand? Where do you sit?” It’s organized. But they are collaborators, and that’s what they became actors to do in the first place. Even if they realize that they’re stuck, they realize that everybody else is stuck, too. They’ll do their best to help everybody climb out of that hole.

SS: You produced a few films for other filmmakers, and certainly your former production company, Lion’s Gate, was an attempt to broaden the reach of other filmmakers. Was producing too much of a departure for you?

RA: I didn’t want to force my artistic views on anybody else. If I’m going to do that, why have them there? And these were their projects. It doesn’t give me much gratification. There was a time where I was trying to be a mogul, I guess. It was no fun. The only time I ever fired an actor was for Robert Benton, who I produced a picture for called The Late Show. I had to step in and do it, because he wouldn’t do it. Bob said, “I have an actor I need to get rid of.” Suddenly I realized that’s what my job was. I’ve never done that in my own films. There were times when I should have, but I just didn’t. I always made the films out of the material I gathered together. I figured that’s the DNA of the film, so I would stick with it.

SS: For all the actors you’ve worked with on a regular basis, is it a painful process when one particular actor falls out of favor, or if there’s simply never another role that comes along that suits them?

RA: There’s a lot of pain connected to it, because actors by nature think they can do anything. And they’re right. But then everything else has to change. But I’ve found that I use people over and over again. If I see someone in a picture and I like their work, I go right to them.

SS: What about when you’re not able to go back to certain names and certain friends — if you can’t quite find that right match for them?

RA: I don’t know that that’s happened. Lily Tomlin, I hadn’t worked with before this last picture for a long time. Everybody else on the Prairie Home Companion picture was new to me. There were several people there that I’d like to work with again, and probably will. The question is, how much longer am I going to be able to work? Eventually we give up the ghost.

SS: Retirement not being an option?

RA: No, retirement not being an option. But stopping working being a reality, probably.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Master Says 087

There is a popular misconception that film-makers have to look to Hollywood to be commercially successful but this is how we have been conditioned.

Mike Leigh

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Master Says 086

It's always the cast. As you pull a layer off, you realize they are really courageous, really gutsy...I admire them for what they bring to me (and) to the audience.

Robert Altman

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Master Says 085

There's no point in making a movie just to be making a movie.

Warren Beatty

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Master Dies

"Retirement? You're talking about death, right?"
Robert Altman

His obit from Variety:

Helmer Robert Altman dies
Cause of death not disclosed

Robert Altman, the caustic and irreverent satirist behind "M-A-S-H," "Nashville" and "The Player" who made a career out of bucking Hollywood management and story conventions, died at a Los Angeles Hospital, his Sandcastle 5 Productions Company said Tuesday. He was 81.

The director died Monday night, Joshua Astrachan, a producer at Altman's Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York City, told The Associated Press.

The cause of death wasn't disclosed. A news release was expected later in the day, Astrachan said.

A five-time Academy Award nominee for best director, most recently for 2001's "Gosford Park," he finally won a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2006.

"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," Altman said while accepting the award. "I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition."

Altman had one of the most distinctive styles among modern filmmakers. He often employed huge ensemble casts, encouraged improvisation and overlapping dialogue and filmed scenes in long tracking shots that would flit from character to character.

Perpetually in and out of favor with audiences and critics, Altman worked ceaselessly since his anti-war black comedy "M-A-S-H" established his reputation in 1970, but he would go for years at a time directing obscure movies before roaring back with a hit.

After a string of commercial duds including "The Gingerbread Man" in 1998, "Cookie's Fortune" in 1999 and "Dr. T & the Women" in 2000, Altman took his all-American cynicism to Britain for 2001's "Gosford Park."

A combination murder-mystery and class-war satire set among snobbish socialites and their servants on an English estate in the 1930s, "Gosford Park" was Altman's biggest box-office success since "M-A-S-H."

Besides best-director, "Gosford Park" earned six other Oscar nominations, including best picture and best supporting actress for both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. It won the original-screenplay Oscar, and Altman took the best-director prize at the Golden Globes for "Gosford Park."

Altman's other best-director Oscar nominations came for "M-A-S-H," the country-music saga "Nashville" from 1975, the movie-business satire "The Player" from 1992 and the ensemble character study "Short Cuts" from 1993. He also earned a best-picture nomination as producer of "Nashville."

No director ever got more best-director nominations without winning a regular Oscar, though four other men — Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor — tied with Altman at five.

In May, Altman brought out "A Prairie Home Companion," with Garrison Keillor starring as the announcer of a folksy musical show — with the same name as Keillor's own long-running show — about to be shut down by new owners. Among those in the cast were Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones.

"This film is about death," Altman said at a May 3 news conference in St. Paul, Minn., also attended by Keillor and many of the movie's stars.

He often took on Hollywood genres with a revisionist's eye, de-romanticizing the Western hero in 1971's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and 1976's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," the film-noir gumshoe in 1973's "The Long Goodbye" and outlaw gangsters in "Thieves Like Us."

"M-A-S-H" was Altman's first big success after years of directing television, commercials, industrial films and generally unremarkable feature films. The film starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould was set during the Korean War but was Altman's thinly veiled attack on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"That was my intention entirely. If you look at that film, there's no mention of what war it is," Altman said in an Associated Press interview in 2001, adding that the studio made him put a disclaimer at the beginning to identify the setting as Korea.

"Our mandate was bad taste. If anybody had a joke in the worst taste, it had a better chance of getting into the film, because nothing was in worse taste than that war itself," Altman said.

The film spawned the long-running TV sitcom starring Alan Alda, a show Altman would refer to with distaste as "that series." Unlike the social message of the film, the series was prompted by greed, Altman said.

"They made millions and millions of dollars by bringing an Asian war into Americans' homes every Sunday night," Altman said in 2001. "I thought that was the worst taste."

Altman never minced words about reproaching Hollywood. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said Hollywood served as a source of inspiration for the terrorists by making violent action movies that amounted to training films for such attacks.

"Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they'd seen it in a movie," Altman said.

Altman was written off repeatedly by the Hollywood establishment, and his reputation for arrogance and hard drinking — a habit he eventually gave up — hindered his efforts to raise money for his idiosyncratic films.

While critical of studio executives, Altman held actors in the highest esteem. He joked that on "Gosford Park," he was there mainly to turn the lights on and off for the performers.

The respect was mutual. Top-name actors would clamor for even bit parts in his films. Altman generally worked on shoestring budgets, yet he continually landed marquee performers who signed on for a fraction of their normal salaries.

After the mid-1970s, the quality of Altman's films became increasingly erratic. His 1980 musical "Popeye," with Robin Williams, was trashed by critics, and Altman took some time off from film.

He directed the Broadway production of "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," following it with a movie adaptation in 1982. Altman went back and forth from TV to theatrical films over the next decade, but even when his films earned critical praise, such as 1990's "Vincent & Theo," they remained largely unseen.

"The Player" and "Short Cuts" re-established Altman's reputation and commercial viability. But other 1990s films — including his fashion-industry farce "Ready to Wear" and "Kansas City," his reverie on the 1930s jazz and gangster scene of his hometown — fell flat.

Born Feb. 20, 1925, Altman hung out in his teen years at the jazz clubs of Kansas City, Mo., where his father was an insurance salesman.

Altman was a bomber pilot in World War II and studied engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia before taking a job making industrial films in Kansas City. He moved into feature films with "The Delinquents" in 1957, then worked largely in television through the mid 1960s, directing episodes of such series as "Bonanza" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

Altman and his wife, Kathryn, had two sons, Robert and Matthew, and he had a daughter, Christine, and two other sons, Michael and Stephen, from two previous marriages.

When he received his honorary Oscar in 2006, Altman revealed he had a heart transplant a decade earlier.

"I didn't make a big secret out of it, but I thought nobody would hire me again," he said after the ceremony. "You know, there's such a stigma about heart transplants, and there's a lot of us out there."

Folk WIsdom 022

Seeking strength from others prevents us from finding our own.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Master Says 084

It's easy to fool the eye but it's hard to fool the heart.

Al Pacino

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Master Says 083

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.

William Goldman

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Master Says 082

We're always bemoaning the fact that there are great directors around who haven't made a decent film in 20 years, or writers who have ran out of stuff, but I don't think it's that so much as they simply lose their ear - or maybe their eye - because they haven't been looking and listening.
What I always meant by that was that I do believe that a lot of directors, and writers, and sometimes producers just lose their edge because they haven't seen anybody or talked to anybody or been with anybody who isn't a kind of replica of themselves for a long period of time. You know, we're voyeurs and eavesdroppers, and if everyone is voyeuring and eavesdropping on what's being said at Spago, you're not going to get a lot of really good material.

Buck Henry

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Master Says 081

The only safe thing is to take a chance.

Mike Nichols

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Master Says 080

Hollywood is the only industry, even taking in soup companies, which does not have laboratories for the purpose of experimentation.

Orson Welles

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Master Says 079

An actor is never so great as when he reminds you of an animal - falling like a cat, lying like a dog, moving like a fox.

Francois Truffaut

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Master Says 078

Wisdom and love have nothing to do with each other. Wisdom is staying alive, survival. You’re wise if you don’t stick your finger in the light plug.
Love -- you’ll stick your finger in anything.

Robert Altman

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Science of Saturday Night

Many years ago I received a voice mail on a Saturday night from a woman I was dating. In her coldly sensual wit she droned, "Hey it's _____. Saturday night, big Saturday night." So forever since, that message echoes in my brain anytime something is happening on Saturday night and, perhaps equally when absolutely nothing is happening.
Last night was a Big Saturday Night. We were invited to the wrap party for Gus Van Sant's film, Paranoid Park. The type of event that I always am pleased to have the opportunity to attend, yet always feel a great deal of anxiety about. The trepidation is due in part to an egotistical conceit that being part of the crowd rather than one of the kingpins is something shamefully mundane. The fact is that I admire Gus Van Sant tremendously. He is an incredibly prolific visionary that makes wonderful films. Whenever I've been in his presence he treats people very graciously. Who am I to think I merit more than an invite to such a celebration? I didn't last night. It was a nice feeling to be one in the crowd, free from envy and thwarted entitlement. In fact I spoke to a couple people about my recent filmmaking with earnest humility. There was no need to assert my accomplishments, I was simply reporting on some facts of my own life. I really appreciate the ability to feel comfortable with who I am. It's been a long time coming after a lifetime of the anguish of feeling the need to be more than I am. On a less solipsistic note, when we were leaving we noticed some of the teen girls in the cast in a room by themselves. They weren't talking. They were logged onto myspace.

After the party we went to see The Science of Sleep. What a joyful treat that was! At more than one point I found myself attempting to discern what was dream and what was fictive reality. I was able to resist my left brain impulses and enjoy the film's illogic. I love Gael Garcia Bernal. For one, he's a very wonderful actor that skillfully fills every moment without chewing the scenery. Another thing I find familiar and attractive about him is that he's a Chilango. He speaks English with the accent and posseses the mirthful ennui particular to my wonderful friends in Mexico City. I love the ordinary look and feel of Michel Gondry's films. His work is wonderfully cinematic without any slick baggage. In a certain sense they're anti-films. The surrealism of his films is all the more powerful because of it. Charlotte Gainsbourg embodies that sensibility well, she's an anti-movie star. She seems to wear no makeup nor comb her hair, she is at once self-effacing, strong and helpless. How utterly human, yet on a scale grand enough to allow us to get really close to her. Go see this picture in a theater. For sure.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Master Says 077

Dare to be naive.

Buckminster Fuller

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Master Says 076

Everyone sees the big things, but these smaller things are so beautiful and people might not notice them if I didn't emphasize them.

Georgia O'Keefe

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Fences Make Good Neighbors

I've been thinking about the idea of community a lot since yesterday afternoon. I was directed to a local theater review blog in which an actor was cited as a reason not to see a show. The comment didn't directly name the actor, but a quick cross-reference to the theatre's home page would quickly reveal his identity. I had to scan sixty-some comments to find this attack. Boy, it was sickening. A lot of petty but quite vicious back and forth. Ultimately, I didn't find any of it illuminating. Gossip can sometimes serve as a means of social control, but this was plain old cruel and snarky stuff.
Last summer there was a similiar thread of comments on another local theater weblog. About that time I stopped visiting blogs on a regular basis. I also started to focus my energies on posting bits of wisdom and inpiration on my own blog rather than my own turgid solipsism.
I have often said that artists aren't polite. I need to amend that and assert that an artist's work need not be polite. I have acted and spoken quite cavalierly in my life, openly judging and criticizing others in a vain attempt to place myself within a community of artists that I'm simultaneously undermining with my vitriol. One of the comments about a particular theater suggesting that the theater opened itself to attack because it charges $18 for its tickets and seeks reviews in the local press. I certainly don't want to spend an evening watching actors struggle to tell a story for any price. A reviewer can certainly report this type of critique without calling out a company and, or an actor. Especially if the reviewer seems to call into question the performers' right to perform at all.
I want to say it loud, very loud, that I am not speaking from the mountaintop. Just yesterday, in a somewhat more measured tone and certainly more private discourse, I quipped to a friend about a couple of our mutual colleagues getting the opportunity to direct funded feature films.
I suppose anytime that we trumpet the lack of fairness in the universe we likewise sound our own foolish arrogance. We all have the right to pursue our dreams and aspirations. We live in a free market economy that confers success and failure based more directly on patronage than on idealism. In fact, fairness by definition most often determines the prices we pay based on supply and demand. In the case of entertainment, if the supply doesn't meet the demand another source of supply is sought. It's a bit of a self-cleaning oven in the end. An argument can be made that a bad play or theater is bad for the theater community as a whole, causing audiences to lower their expectations or stay away. I myself have made the argument that a bad film is bad for every filmmaker. I must admit the vanity of that opinion is motivated by a projected need to raise the capital for my own films. Investors are going to invest in more films. Audiences are going to go see live theater. Maybe not forever, clearly our culture is significantly shifting to more electronic media based forms of entertainment. Our civilization may well be in decline -- complaining about an actor's or a director's work so passive-aggressively is likely abbeting the decline rather than arresting it. To further prove that the basis of such arguments is largely egotistical (asserting that that which is ego-driven is ultimately destructive to the individual and his or her community), I find that many plays or films cited as must-see successes are often picked apart or compared disfavorably to what the critic could have done with the same resources.
We have the right to say whatever we like, of course. We also have the right to live very dysfunctionally. Perhaps a good way to practice setting some boundaries is to exalt in the success of others.
Okay. Enough of this. I have work to do. Blogging is no exception to the adage that idle hands are the devil's playthings.

Love One Another,
Signore Direttore