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Ebert's Altman Home Companion

Interviews

* R. Altman, 'Wedding' photographer * Altman's 'H.E.A.L.T.H.' * Altman adrift * Altman & Vincent & Theo * Once again, a 'Player' * Altman invents his life as it goes along

Selected reviews

"That Cold Day in the Park" "M*A*S*H" "Brewster McCloud" "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" "Images" "The Long Goodbye" "Thieves Like Us" "California Split" "Nashville" "3 Women" "A Wedding" "A Perfect Couple" "Popeye" "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" "Secret Honor" "Fool for Love" "Vincent & Theo" "Beyond Therapy" "The Player" "Short Cuts" "Prêt-à-Porter" "Kansas City" "The Gingerbread Man" "Cookie's Fortune" "Dr. T & the Women" "Gosford Park" "The Company" "A Prairie Home Companion"

The year 2006 was the year of Robert Altman (again). So, too, you might say were, oh, 1971, 1975, 1992... Altman, who died at age 81, was one of our greatest American filmmakers and would be periodically "rediscovered" over the course of his long and fruitful career. This year, Altman released his valedictory "A Prairie Home Companion," received his honorary Life Achievement Oscar, and revealed that he'd been living and working for the last dozen years or so with a transplanted heart.

Meanwhile, Roger Ebert and an audience at the 2006 Conference on World Affairs went over one of Altman's underappreciated masterworks, "The Long Goodbye," shot by shot for eight hours spread over four days.

Ebert has closely tracked Altman's career -- and Altman himself -- since the beginning. Here's an overview of Ebert's encounters with, and observations about, Altman over the years:

1990 Interview:

I came of age as a movie critic in the 1970s, a decade when Altman's brilliance and whimsy seemed right at home, and once a year or so I could look forward to a new flight of Altman's fancy. He made hit films like "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and his "Nashville" is considered one of the best films of the decade, but I also came to love the strange excursions into his private visions, movies like "3 Women" (1977), with Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek as denizens of a desert condo who exchange personalities. I picked that one as the best film of that year, but it was such a puzzlement to audiences...

Altman simply did not care whether a project was commercial. He cared only if the project intrigued him. In the 1970s that was permissible because a lot of people in Hollywood thought the same way. Then the wind shifted and blew Bob out of town. It wasn't that Altman's pictures lost money. Indeed, his "Popeye" (1980), his last big-budget film, made money for Paramount. It was that a timid production executive couldn't look at an Altman project and make any sense out of it. His films didn't sound like other films, and they didn't rip off the hit pictures of the moment. They were originals. So how could the executive know if they'd make money or not?

"That Cold Day in the Park"

The plot is too improbable to be taken seriously, and yet director Robert Altman apparently does take it seriously. And so we get a torturous essay on abnormal psychology when, with less trouble, we could have had a simple, juicy horror film. There are some of the same exploitation angles as "Rosemary's Baby" (clinical discussions of reproduction, an eerie apartment, strange games), but they just don't work. In a straightforward horror movie, you can push pretty far before the audience starts laughing; they want to be scared. But "That Cold Day in the Park" doesn't declare itself as a horror film until too late, and the audience is already lost.

"MASH"

nd it is the flat-out, poker-faced hatred in "M*A*S*H" that makes it work. Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren't really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they're not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry.

But none of this philosophy comes close to the insane logic of "M*A*S*H," which is achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. The movie depends upon timing and tone to be funny. I had an opportunity to read the original script, and I found it uninteresting. It would have been a failure, if it had been directed like most comedies; but Ring Lardner, Jr., wrote it, I suspect, for exactly the approach Robert Altman used in his direction, and so the angle of a glance or the timing of a pause is funnier than any number of conventional gag lines.

"Brewster McCloud"

One of the things about "M*A*S*H" was that people wanted to see it a second time. That's typical of the recent Robert Altman style; "Brewster McCloud" is just as densely packed with words and action, and you keep thinking you're missing things. You probably are. It's that quality that's so attractive about these two Altman films. We get the sense of a live intelligence, rushing things ahead on the screen, not worrying whether we'll understand....

But all of this isn't of much help -- is it? -- if you want me to explain what "Brewster" is about. I'm not sure it's about anything. I imagine you could extract a subject from it, and I'll try that the next time I see it. But I wonder if the movie isn't primarily style; if Altman doesn't have a personal sense of humor and wants his directing style to reflect it. One could, of course, get into a deep thing about birds and wings and freedom, but why?

"McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

"McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is like no other Western ever made, and with it, Robert Altman earns his place as one of the best contemporary directors.

From Ebert's Great Movies review:

It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971). This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come -- not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem--an elegy for the dead.

"Images"

Robert Altman's movies don't always do very well at the box office, but they're invariably the subject of a lot of critical attention. He's among the most persistently original of film directors, always pushing to see how far his material will go....

"Images" is a film Altman admirers should make a point of seeing. Its very differences with most of his work help illuminate his style, and he demonstrates superb skill at something he's supposed to be weak at: telling a well-constructed narrative. It also shows him in inventive collaboration with Miss York, whose children's book about unicorns is read on the sound track and supplies her character with an alternate fantasy universe in which strange creatures and quaint legends replace the challenges of real life

"The Long Goodbye"

Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" attempts to do a very interesting thing. It tries to be all genre and no story, and it almost works. It makes no serious effort to reproduce the Raymond Chandler detective novel it's based on; instead, it just takes all the characters out of that novel and lets them stew together in something that feels like a private-eye movie.

From Ebert's Great Movies review:

He wants to show a private eye from the noir era blundering through a plot he is perhaps too naive to understand. The movie's visual strategy underlines his confusion. Altman and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, "flashed" the color film with carefully calculated extra light, to give it a faded, pastel quality, as if Marlowe's world refuses to reveal vivid colors and sharp definition. Most of the shots are filmed through foregrounds that obscure: Panes of glass, trees and shrubbery, architectural details, all clouding Marlowe's view (and ours). The famous Altman overlapping dialogue gives the impression that Marlowe doesn't pick up on everything around him. Far from resenting the murkiness in his world, Marlowe repeats the catch-phrase, "It's all right with me." The line was improvised by Gould, and he and Altman decided to use it throughout the story as an ironic refrain....

"The Long Goodbye" should not be anybody's first film noir, nor their first Altman movie. Most of its effect comes from the way it pushes against the genre, and the way Altman undermines the premise of all private eye movies, which is that the hero can walk down mean streets, see clearly, and tell right from wrong. The man of honor from 1953 is lost in the hazy narcissism of 1973, and it's not all right with him.

"Thieves Like Us"

Some movies are content to offer us escapist experiences and hope we'll be satisfied. But you can't sink back and simply absorb an Altman film; he's as concerned with style as subject, and his preoccupation isn't with story or character, but with how he's showing us his tale.

That's the case with "Thieves Like Us," which no doubt has all sorts of weaknesses in character and plot, but which manages a visual strategy so perfectly controlled that we get an uncanny feel for this time and this place. The movie is about a gang of fairly dumb bank robbers, and about how the youngest of them falls in love with a girl, and about how they stick up some banks and listen to the radio and drink Coke and eventually get shot at.

"California Split"

The movie will be compared with "M*A*S*H," the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles "M*A*S*H" in several big ways: It's funny, it's hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it's a better movie than "M*A*S*H" because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since "M*A*S*H," he's been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath....

What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of "California Split" we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn't know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there's an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it's an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we're moving through these people -- instead of that they're lined up talking to us. "California Split" is a great movie and it's a great experience, too; we've been there with Bill and Charlie.

"Nashville"

It's a film about the losers and the winners, the drifters and the stars in Nashville, and the most complete expression yet of not only the genius but also the humanity of Altman, who sees people with his camera in such a way as to enlarge our own experience. Sure, it's only a movie. But after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It's that good a movie.

The movie doesn't have a star. It does not, indeed, even have a lead role. Instead, Altman creates a world, a community in which some people know each other and others don't, in which people are likely to meet before they understand the ways in which their lives are related. And he does it all so easily, or seems to, that watching "Nashville" is as easy as breathing and as hard to stop. Altman is the best natural filmmaker since Fellini....

"Nashville," which seems so unstructured as it begins, reveals itself in this final sequence to have had a deep and very profound structure -- but one of emotions, not ideas.

This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn't flatter us but it does love us.

"3 Women"

"3 Women" isn't Altman out of Freud via Psychology Today, and so the movie mercifully doesn't attempt to explain what's happened in logical terms (any explanation would be disappointing, I think, compared to the continuing mystery). Somehow we feel what's happened, though, even if we can't explain it in so many words.

The movie's been compared to Bergman's "Persona," another film in which women seem to share personalities, and maybe "Persona," also so mysterious when we first see it, helps point the way. But I believe Altman has provided his own signposts, in two important scenes, one at the beginning, one at the end, that mirror one another....

And so the women symbolically give birth to each other, around and around in a circle, just as (Altman himself suggests) the end of the picture could be seen as the moment just before its beginning.

The movie's story came to Altman during a dream, he's said, and he provides it with a dreamlike tone. The plot connections, which sometimes make little literal sense, do seem to connect emotionally, viscerally, as all things do in dreams. To act in a story like this must be a great deal more difficult than performing straightforward narrative, but Spacek and Duvall go through their changes so well that it's eerie, and unforgettable. So is the film.

1977 Interview:

"I kept on discovering things in the film ["3 Women"] right up to the final edit. The film begins, for example, with Sissy Spacek wandering in out of the desert and meeting Shelley Duvall and getting the job in the rehabilitation center. And when I was looking at the end of the film during the editing process, it occurred to me that when you see that final exterior shot of the house, and the dialog asks the Sissy Spacek character to get the sewing basket -- well, she could just walk right out of the house and go to California and walk in at the beginning of the movie, and it would be perfectly circular and even make sense that way. But that's only one way to read it."

Altman said he's constantly amazed by the things he reads about his films in reviews. "Sometimes," he said, "I think the critics take their lead from the statements directors themselves make about their films. There was an astonishing review in Newsweek by Jack Kroll, for example, of Fellini's "Casanova." It made no sense at all, in terms of the film itself. But then I read something Fellini had said about the film, and I think Kroll was simply finding in the film what Fellini said he put there.

"With '3 Women,' now, a lot of the reviews go on and on about the supposed Jungian implications of the relationships. If you ask me to give a child's simplified difference between Jung and Freud, I couldn't. It's just a field I know nothing about. But the name of Jung turns up in the production notes that were written for the press kit, and there you are."

"A Wedding"

Altman plunges gleefully into this wealth of material; there are forty-eight characters in his movie, give or take a few, and by the film's end we know them all. We may not know them well -- at weddings there are always unidentified cousins over in the corner -- but we can place them, and chart the lines of power and passion that run among them. And some of them are drawn as well as Altman has drawn anyone.

That's because “A Wedding” is a lot deeper and more ambitious than we might at first expect. It begins in comedy, it moves into realms of social observation, it descends into personal revelations that are sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, and then it ends in a way that turns everything back upon itself. The more you think about what Altman's done, the more impressive his accomplishment becomes.

"A Perfect Couple"

The movie looks like several good ideas for several movies, made all at once and regardless of whether the pieces fit easily together. That's too bad, because the movie's got so many interesting things in it, so many original characters and, yes, so much interesting music that it shouldn't have been allowed to become such a stylistic confusion. Just one or two, of the stories would have done, and maybe half as much basic material, treated with more detail.

1980 interview:

"I sincerely doubt that you could get a good small dramatic film made today," he says. "It looks like the only pictures of any value in the next few years will be independent productions -- on everything else, they're selling the deal, not the movie.

"I don't know if I'll make another film. I'd sure like to. I have three projects, but I don't know where to take them....

"But . . . I dunno. In some circles I'm the kiss of death. Now I understand they're even blaming me for the poor box office for Clint Eastwood's 'Bronco Billy.' Too many people saw the ads and confused the movie with my 'Buffalo Bill and the Indians,' they say." He performs a somewhat hollow chuckle.

"Popeye"

One of Robert Altman's trademarks is the way he creates whole new worlds in his movies -- worlds where we somehow don't believe that life ends at the edge of the screen, worlds in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living. That gift for populating new places is one of the richest treasures in "Popeye," Altman's musical comedy. He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms -- the comic strip -- and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits.

"Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"

If Robert Altman hadn't directed this movie, the reviews would have described it as Altmanesque. It's a mixture of the bizarre and the banal, a slice of lives that could never have been led, a richly textured mixture of confessions, obsessions, and surprises.

"Secret Honor"

What were the real secrets of this most complex president? Robert Altman's "Secret Honor," which is one of the most scathing, lacerating and brilliant movies of 1984, attempts to answer our questions. The film is a work of fiction. An actor is employed to impersonate Nixon. But all of the names and many of the facts are real, and the film gives us the uncanny sensation that we are watching a man in the act of exposing his soul....

Truth and fiction mix together into a tapestry of life. We get the sensation of a man pouring out all of his secrets after a lifetime of repression. His sentences rush out, disorganized, disconnected, under tremendous pressure, interrupted by four-letter words that serve almost as punctuation. After a while the specific details don't matter so much; what we are hearing is a scream of a brilliant, gifted man who is tortured by the notion that fate might have made him a loser.

A strange thing happened to me as I watched this film. I knew it was fiction. I didn't approach it in the spirit of learning the "truth about Nixon." But as a movie, it created a deeper truth, an artistic truth, and after "Secret Honor" was over, you know what? I had a deeper sympathy for Richard Nixon than I have ever had before.

"Fool for Love"

This is Altman's fourth movie in a row based on a play. It comes after "Jimmy Dean," "Streamers" and the extraordinary "Secret Honor," about Richard Nixon (he has filmed three other plays for cable television). After a career as one of the most free-swinging of all modern movie directors ("M*A*S*H," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville"), it is interesting to see him embracing the discipline of a play script. Having made movies that were all over the map, he now inhabits interiors - of rooms, and of people's minds. With "Fool for Love," he has succeeded on two levels that seem opposed to each other. He has made a melodrama, almost a soap opera, in which the characters achieve a kind of nobility.

"Vincent & Theo"

Only occasionally does a film come along where we get the sensation that actual creation is taking place before our eyes. That happens when the filmmakers are also in the art of creating, and transfer their inspiration to the characters in a sort of artistic ventriloquism. "Camille Claudel" (1989) had that feeling, as Isabelle Adjani grubbed about in a ditch, digging up clay for her sculptures. And now here is Robert Altman's "Vincent and Theo," another film that generates the feeling that we are in the presence of a man in the act of creation.

"Beyond Therapy"

Robert Altman's "Beyond Therapy" is killed by terminal whimsy. It's a movie in which every scene must have seemed like a lot of fun at the time, but, when they're edited together, there's no pattern to the movie, nothing to build toward, no reason for us to care. It's all behavior.

One of the problems is Altman's weakness for asides and irrelevancies, for the kind of weird background action that usually works in his movies, but not this time. One of the things movie directors often have to guard against is the extra who wants to be the star, and competes with the foreground action by trying to call attention to his distracting behavior in the back of the shot. "Beyond Therapy" seems to have been directed to give those would-be stars a chance; there's always something going on in the background, and most of the time we're not sure what it is.

"The Player"

This is material Altman knows from the inside and the outside. He owned Hollywood in the 1970s, when his films like M*A*S*H," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville" were the most audacious work in town. Hollywood cast him into the outer darkness in the 1980s, when his eclectic vision didn't fit with movies made by marketing studies. Now he is back in glorious vengeance, with a movie that is not simply about Hollywood, but about the way we live now, in which the top executives of many industries are cut off from the real work of their employees, and exist in a rarefied atmosphere of greedy competition with one another.

"The Player" opens with a very long continuous shot that is quite a technical achievement, yes, but also works in another way, to summarize Hollywood's state of mind in the early 1990s. Many names and periods are evoked: Silent pictures, foreign films, the great directors of the past. But these names are like the names of saints who no longer seem to have the power to perform miracles. The new gods are like Griffin Mill -- sleek, expensively dressed, noncommittal, protecting their backsides. Their careers are a study in crisis control. If they do nothing wrong, they can hardly be fired just because they never do anything right.

1992 interview:

There is the temptation to write this article from the obvious angle, which is that Robert Altman, the perennial Hollywood maverick and outsider, has skewered the establishment with his savage new comedy named "The Player." There would be some truth there.

Altman has never been a happy camper, and "The Player" shows Hollywood in the 1990s with an unforgiving clarity. All of the insider books you've read--the Julia Phillips autobiography, the exposes about David Begelman and "Heaven's Gate" and "Bonfire" and even Michael Milkin--were the words. This is the music.

But there are wheels within wheels, and Altman the outsider is also Altman the industry survivor, who has made most of his films for big studios, who has worked with the top stars (Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Cher, Robin Williams), and who was as happy as a clam when 20th Century-Fox rented him a yacht at the Cannes Film Festival.

"The reason I'm not exempt from the criticisms in my film," Altman himself says, "is that I'm a player, too."

"Short Cuts"

Los Angeles always seems to be waiting for something. Permanence seems out of reach; some great apocalyptic event is on the horizon, and people view the future tentatively. Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" captures that uneasiness perfectly in its interlocking stories about people who seem trapped in the present, always juggling.

The movie is based on short stories by Raymond Carver, but this is Altman's work, not Carver's, and all the film really has in common with its source is a feeling for people who are disconnected - from relatives, church, tradition - and support themselves with jobs that never seem quite real. It is hard work, no doubt, to be a pool cleaner, a chauffeur, a phone-sex provider, a birthday cake decorator, a jazz singer, a helicopter pilot, but these are professions that find you before you find them. How many people end up in jobs they planned for? Altman is fascinated by the accidental nature of life, by the way that whole decades of our lives can be shaped by events we do not understand or even know about.

"Ready to Wear" ("Prêt-à-Porter")

In "Ready to Wear," you will see Lauren Bacall, Harry Belafonte, Teri Garr, Forest Whitaker, Naomi Campbell, Lyle Lovett, Christy Turlington, Cher and countless others, sometimes shot in scenes that feel improvised in the midst of real events. The result is a little like a comedy crossed with a home movie.

It is also, like many home movies, somewhat rambling, and overly dependent on knowing the names of all the players. If you know nothing about the fashion industry, your enjoyment of "Ready to Wear" is likely to be limited. If you know everything about it, your reaction, judging from the early returns, is likely to be purple-faced rage. That leaves, let's see, people who know something about the long and wonderful career of Robert Altman, and who are likely to find this film, if not among his best, very nice to have, all the same.

"Kansas City"

This story by itself is fairly thin; it might have held together for the length of a 1930s B-movie, which is probably what Altman was thinking of when he wrote it. But the story is not really what "Kansas City'' is about. As counterpoint, Altman gathered some of the best living jazz musicians, put them on a set representing the Hey Hey Club, and asked them to play period material in the style of the Kansas City jazz giants (Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Jay McShann, Lester Young, etc.). He filmed their work in a concert documentary style, and intercuts it with another narrative, involving a hard-boiled political hack (Steve Buscemi) who is rounding up drunks and drifters and buying their votes on Election Day.

What he asks of the actors (those who are "soloists,'' anyway) is not realism but the same kind of playful show-off performances he's getting from the musicians. And to understand the acting, it's helpful to begin with the music. The one scene everyone will remember from this movie is an extended exchange of solos involving Hawkins (Craig Handy), Young (Joshua Redman) and Ben Webster (James Carter). The music is terrific and so is the energy level, as the musicians not only celebrate their own styles but quote and borrow from one another, and weave elements of other songs into the one they're playing.

"The Gingerbread Man"

From Robert Altman we expect a certain improvisational freedom, a plot that finds its way down unexpected channels and depends on coincidence and serendipity. Here he seems content to follow the tightly-plotted maze mapped out by Grisham; the Altman touches are more in dialog and personal style than in construction. He gives the actors freedom to move around in their roles. Instead of the tunnel vision of most Grisham movies, in which every line of dialog relentlessly hammers down the next plot development, "The Gingerbread Man" has space for quirky behavior, kidding around, and murky atmosphere. The hurricane is not just window dressing, but an effective touch: It adds a subtle pressure beneath the surface, lending tension to ordinary scenes with its promise of violence to come.

"Cookie's Fortune"

Altman's films are sometimes criticized for being needlessly enigmatic and elliptical, for ending at quixotic moments, for getting too cute with the asides. He does sometimes commit those sins, if sins they are, but in the service of creating movies that are original. "Cookie's Fortune'' has no ragged edges or bothersome detours, and flows from surprise to delight. At the end, when just desserts are handed out, it arrives at a kind of perfection.

"Dr. T & the Women"

Robert Altman would never admit this, but I believe Dr. T, the gynecologist in his latest film, is an autobiographical character. Played by Richard Gere with tact, sweetness and a certain weary bemusement in the face of female complexity, Dr. T works for and with women, and sometimes dares to love them. So it is with Altman, who is more interested in women than any other great director, with the exception of Ingmar Bergman.

In a time when almost all movies revolve around men, Altman alone gives more than equal time to his female characters. He has built whole films ("Brewster McCloud," "3 Women") around a woman like Shelley Duvall, whose face and presence fascinated him when he discovered her as a waitress in a Texas coffee shop. Many of his best films, like "Nashville," "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" and "Cookie's Fortune," are dominated by female characters. And in "Dr. T and the Women," he creates a galaxy of Dallas women -- old, young, wonderful, crabby, infatuated, independent -- and surrounds his hero with them. When you hear that Dr. T is a gynecologist played by Richard Gere, you assume he is a love machine mowing down his patients. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Gosford Park"

Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" is above all a celebration of styles -- the distinct behavior produced by the British class system, the personal styles of a rich gallery of actors, and his own style of introducing a lot of characters and letting them weave their way through a labyrinthine plot. At a time when too many movies focus every scene on a $20 million star, an Altman film is like a party with no boring guests.

"Gosford Park" is such a joyous and audacious achievement it deserves comparison with his very best movies, such as "M*A*S*H," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts" and "Cookie's Fortune." It employs the genre of the classic British murder mystery, as defined by Agatha Christie: Guests and servants crowd a great country house, and one of them is murdered. But "Gosford Park" is a Dame Agatha story in the same sense that "M*A*S*H" is a war movie, "McCabe" is a Western and "Nashville" is a musical: Altman uses the setting, but surpasses the limitations and redefines the goal. This is no less than a comedy about selfishness, greed, snobbery, eccentricity and class exploitation, and Altman is right when he hopes people will see it more than once; after you know the destination the journey is transformed.

"The Company"

Why did it take me so long to see what was right there in front of my face -- that "The Company" is the closest that Robert Altman has come to making an autobiographical film? I've known him since 1970, have been on the sets of many of his films, had more than a drink with him in the old days and know that this movie reflects exactly the way he works -- how he assembles cast, story and location and plunges in up to his elbows, stirring the pot. With Altman, a screenplay is not only a game plan but a diversionary tactic, to distract the actors (and characters) while Altman sees what they've got....

As for Altman, I imagine some of the most heartfelt scenes in the movie for him are the ones involving Mr. A's attempt to create art while always having to think about money. Altman has rarely had big box-office hits (his most popular film was one of his earliest, "M*A*S*H"), and yet he has found a way to work steadily, to be prolific, despite almost always choosing projects he wants to work on. How does he do it? "The Company" offers some clues.

"A Prairie Home Companion"

Like the show that inspired it, "A Prairie Home Companion" is not about anything in particular. Perhaps it is about everything in general: About remembering, and treasuring the past, and loving performers not because they are new but because they have lasted. About smiling and being amused, but not laughing out loud, because in Minnesota loud laughter is seen as a vice practiced on the coasts. About how all things pass away, but if you live your life well, everything was fun while it lasted. There is so much of the ghost of Scott Fitzgerald hovering in the shadows of this movie that at the end I quoted to myself the closing words of The Great Gatsby. I'm sure you remember them, so let's say them together: And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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