Director made chaos flow
EmptyThe last time I encountered Robert Altman was two months ago at a reception in Beverly Hills. Two things stand out in my mind, especially in light of his passing Monday at age 81. The first was that to hold a conversation, he needed to sit down. Standing for any period of time was too difficult for him. Yet, second, his greatest enthusiasm was reserved for describing a project that he hoped to make next year. He grew animated when explaining how hand-held cameras would shoot long takes featuring many actors; in other words, a blueprint for a typical Altman film.
I reminded Altman that for many years he lived across the street from my family in Mandeville Canyon in West Los Angeles. I vividly recall the night this neighbor and an unknown Canadian actor named Donald Sutherland came to UCLA, where I was studying theater arts, to show students a film he had just made titled "MASH." No one knew what to expect. Everyone was blown away.
The only occasion when I was able to spend time in his company was in St. Petersburg, Fla., on the set of a movie he made in 1979 titled "Health." You may be excused if you've never heard of it. "Health" never even got a national release.
The shoot almost entirely took place in a rococo sandcastle of a luxury beach hotel decked out in wedding-cake pink with white trim. The movie was about a health convention taking place in that hotel. Yellow and green banners hung from the building. By the pool, extras dressed as huge carrots, tomatoes, artichokes and eggplants walked about nonchalantly.
The film was a political parody in which Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson played rival candidates for the presidency of a large trade organization called HEALTH (Happiness, Energy and Longevity Through Health). James Garner played Bacall's glib press agent, while Carol Burnett was a White House adviser on health.
The day I arrived, Altman greeted me with a hearty "Welcome to FLA," a play upon the title of an Alan Rudolph movie he produced a few years earlier. His set was a loose, friendly place as he worked with many of the same actors and technicians from previous films.
Everyone was invited to dailies in the projection theater in the hotel, after which an Altman feature would screen.
Altman's best works have a marvelous chaotic flow that seems to arrive at a startling, revelatory conclusion almost by accident. Because of this and his notorious popularity with actors, the myth about Altman's working method is that much of his films are improvisational.
"Totally wrong," Altman told me. " 'Nashville,' for instance, was the most amazing movie because there were no surprises in it. It grew into exactly what our initial view of it was."
Bacall confirmed: "I think that (the improvisational) image of Altman's is exaggerated. There is a definite, clear structure, and I've been very aware of it. We do rehearse. It's not all off the cuff."
Added Burnett: "His method is practically the same as how we worked for 11 years on ('The Carol Burnett Show'). He uses the scripts as a springboard. If you have an idea, he wants to hear it. He gets a lot of people's brains churning for him."
When he finally sat down for an interview in the projection theater, Altman came to the heart of his filmmaking philosophy: "I'm just showing you what I see. This is my impression of what my life has been and the culture I'm a part of. … These people (in my movies) are all my family. I love them dearly.
"We don't have any content in films. Everything we do is a matter of style. Style is just a way of getting your attention and saying, 'Hey, look what I see!' "