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'Vincent' nudges director Robert Altman into '90s

You always know with a Robert Altman film that you'll get some kind of nudge, a dig in the ribs to wake you up and make you think differently. In the days when he was riding high with "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville," and now in these latter days when his eccentricity isn't fashionable, that hasn't changed. When you ask him why he's working in Paris or on Broadway or cable TV, Altman always grins and says, "I fiddle on the corner where they throw the coins." It's one of his favorite expressions. But he fiddles where he damn well pleases.

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, it's still not even on home video.

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?

Predictability is the big thing in Hollywood these days. Movies are products like soap or shampoo, and the audience has been trained to attend pictures that can be described in a sentence or two. And so Altman has gone his own way in the last decade, with projects like the Broadway play "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982), which he made into a film that made Cher plausible as a movie actress. Or "Fool For Love" (1985), from the Sam Shepard play, with Shepard and Kim Basinger as strangers in the night at a Texas road stop. That one made Basinger plausible as a serious actress. Or "Streamers" (1984), the film version of the play about buried tensions in an Army barracks. Or "Secret Honor" (1984), the brilliant one-man film that starred Philip Baker Hall in a long night's monologue by Richard M. Nixon. And there was "Tanner '88," the made-for-cable project that starred Michael Murphy as a candidate in the 1988 presidential election.

And now here is "Vincent & Theo," Robert Altman's first film for the 1990s, proving once again that this is a natural filmmaker, that what he does he always of interest, and that he is still gloriously out of step. The movie (now at the Fine Arts) tells the story of the intertwined lives of the painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, who had to deal together with the fact that although Vincent might be a genius, the world disagreed, and only one of his paintings was sold in his lifetime.

The movie industry doesn't have time anymore for movies like this. They're too busy mapping out the $100 million grosses. "Vincent & Theo" has received Altman's best reviews in more than 10 years, and yet his strategy for the picture places an emphasis on survival: "I think the film has to go into theaters where it can sit through Christmas and find its audience," he said. "It's going to be a word-of-mouth audience, because you know they're not going to spend a lot of money advertising it. It's going to have to survive on critics, and awards, and that sort of thing, creating a rumble that people will pick up on. It's going to be a difficult trip, and I don't know what's going to happen."

He shrugged. We talked a couple of times, at this year's Toronto and Chicago film festivals, where "Vincent & Theo" premiered to enthusiastic audiences, and then the movie was launched, somewhat to his surprise, with a two-page advertising spread in the Sunday New York Times - the distributors having apparently gathered that they had something worth spending money on after all.

But the current truths in Hollywood are such that Altman's basic dilemma remains: Nobody wants to invest in a movie that doesn't seem to reflect a surefire formula.

"Today's marketing thing is so uncomplicated," he said. "They're not looking for anything different. They're looking for another hit like last year's hit. There's very little chance for breakthoughs, I think, unless they happen right at the beginning - like 'sex, lies, and videotape,' which got its kickoff at the Cannes festival. It couldn't have made it from a standing start in America. Things are so sad in the movie business right now. Everybody wants to make a blockbuster. They look at 'Pretty Woman' and 'Ghost,' and for the next year, every movie's going to be about a prostitute who's a ghost."

He grinned. "It's astonishing how fast the studios respond to the market. At the beginning of the summer, 'Dick Tracy,' 'Die Hard 2: Die Harder' and 'Total Recall' were going to be monster hits, and the studios were all going to make more movies just like them, and suddenly, just this quick, 'Pretty Woman' and 'Ghost' are the biggest hits, and everybody's talking about ghosts. They think the audience wants stuff that's sentimental and romantic."

Are the big action pictures dead, and is romantic comedy back in?

"I figured it all out," Altman said. "You have to have ghosts because you have to have sex without risk. You can't get AIDS from a ghost. It's as simple as that."

Altman has a prostitute in his picture, too, a forlorn creature who comes one day to pose for Vincent, who asks her to stay with him. But why? He is not interested in sex with her, or apparently with anybody, but perhaps he feels some elementary need for companionship. "Vincent & Theo" is above all a portrait of loneliness, of a tortured man who made paintings of great power - working not out of technique or theory, but out of need and compulsion.

The film stars Tim Roth and Paul Rhys, actors better known in Britain than here, in the title roles. Roth has been in several movies - most recently "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" - and Rhys was in the marathon film version of "Little Dorrit," but most of their work has been on the London stage. As Vincent and Theo, they create realistic performances in a movie that is much more linear and traditional than most of Altman's work.

"I think it kind of had to be more traditional," Altman mused, "because it's a guy's life. There are certain things you have to pay attention to. For instance, I couldn't leave the ear thing out. I couldn't leave out his death. The newness in the story mostly comes from Theo. Most people don't know that much about him."

With the exception of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Altman's films have all taken place in modern times, with contemporary stories and characters. It's surprising to find him making a period biography in a more subdued style.

"I'd been dealing with the idea for five or six years," he said. "I know a lot of painters, and I'm interested in art. I don't feel I've ever seen the subject of artists done right in a movie. I flirted for a long time on doing a film about Jackson Pollock, and then I gave that up. Then I was actually working on a project where I was going to get five or six writers to write a short story that had to do with art. I would shuffle those, and do a Nashville structure. Of course, I could never get that going.

"Then 'Vincent & Theo' came to me, and my first response was - no, I don't want to do it. I don't like these kinds of films. I don't like films about famous people. But I was building this hero in my mind, and when I see a hero, I feel compelled to claim him. I went into it not knowing what kind of film I was going to make, but I clearly knew what kind of film I wasn't going to make."

There are two notable films about Vincent: The Kirk Douglas biopic "Lust for Life," directed by Vincente Minnelli, and "Vincent: The Life And Death Of Vincent Van Gogh," a hauntingly beautiful film of three years ago by Paul Cox, which drew on Vincent's letters and lingered on closeup details of his work. Altman wasn't interested in remaking either one of them.

"I'd seen `Lust For Life' years before," Altman said. "I didn't see it again, although we showed it to the props and wardrobe people, to look at the things we didn't want to do. The Paul Cox film I didn't see. I purposely did not. I wanted to begin with a clean slate."

Altman also avoided getting bogged down in theories about the nature of van Gogh's illness, including a recent medical hypothesis that van Gogh was not insane at all, but cut off his ear and eventually killed himself because of a maddening ear disease. Tim Roth's performance is able to suggest Vincent's increasing madness and depression, and Altman is content to leave it at that. This isn't one of those movies that feels compelled to write in potted psychological theories.

The progress of Vincent's unhappiness is charted in the very fabric of the film itself. There is a brilliant sequence near the very end, for example, where Vincent stands in the middle of a sunflower field and paints, and the camera darts here and there among the sunflowers, making them seem strangely ominous. Not flowers, but a malevolent presence. The scene reminded me of Martin Scorsese's sequence in "New York Stories," where his camera darts back and forth from the palette to the canvas, following the movements of the painter. But in "Vincent & Theo," the camera seems to copy the artist's eye, not his hand, and the sunflowers seem to be looking right back at him. Finally, van Gogh dips his brush in his black paint, and puts in bold, hostile blackbirds, flying low over the sunny field. Messengers of despair and death. It was his last completed painting before his suicide.

`The flowers look like an audience," Altman said. "We never had anything in the script about that scene, and in fact, there's no evidence that he painted the blackbird painting while standing out in the sunflowers. He did most of his painting inside. But where we were making the film, it was a 20-minute drive every morning to where our headquarters were, and we'd pass these goddamned sunflowers every day, and I was just fascinated by them. The shoot was not easy, conditions were not very good, the cast and crew lived in summer cottages, that sort of thing, and I came in one morning, and they said, `We've got a problem, the set isn't ready,' and I said let's go out and shoot in the field. And we did just that. It's one of the key scenes in the movie."

You're living in Paris now?

"My office has been in New York for over 15 years. But I was in Paris for about six years. I'm out of there now, except for doing `Tanner' (in New York City) in 1988. I still have a car in Paris, but that's because it's held hostage by the Paris customs with red tape."

Why did you go to Paris? Could we romantically call it a period of exile?

"Because I work," he said, and I knew what he would say next. "I fiddle on the corner where you throw the coins."

That quote, I said, is in that big new book about you. I was referring to Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, by Patrick McGilligan (St. Martin's Press), which I discovered I admired a great deal more than Altman did.

"Don't talk about that book."

I liked it.

"I didn't. I think it was kind of hypocritical. In the first place, I resent it because when the guy called me about doing it I told him I'm in the middle of my career, and I don't want have a book written about me like I'm dead. I've done some of the best work I've done since that book, and it's such a god- - - - - - big book, it's not like it's some little study."

Would you be happier if it were little?

"I'd be happier if it hadn't been done. I just don't think it's accurate. There's a story in there that some guy told him, and I'm sure the guy who told him thought it was true. I mean, if you and I talked about a dinner that we had at Cannes on a certain night, we can tell two entirely different stories, both as we remembered it. This story has me one time down and out and feeling very low, in Paris, and walking in the streets in the rain, and I see Orson Welles, who is my idol, and go chasing after Welles, and just as I got up to him, Orson Welles disappears into the revolving door of a hotel."

A big revolving door?

"That's exactly what I said. First of all, Welles couldn't get into a revolving door! I mean, I liked his work, but 'Citizen Kane' is not the definitive film for me. I just never had a big adulation thing for him. I may have seen him in the rain, but I sure didn't chase him down the street and then despair. Those kinds of things come from someone else's imagination, and I think when you talk to people about other people, there comes a distortion that isn't even consistent. If you have one person's vision of another person, you can allow for the personal filter, but when you take part of it here and part of it there, well, I couldn't see anything recognizable, truthfully recognizable, in the center of it. I mean, it wasn't even salaciously interesting."

Meanwhile, Altman soldiers on. His next film, he says, will be based on a group of short stories by Raymond Carver, an author who knew the drinking world very well, and wrote about it during the last 10 years of his life, after he stopped drinking. Carver died in 1988.

"I read all of his stories in March, coming back from Europe on the plane," Altman said. "I thought it would be interesting to take several of the stories and interconnect them, move back and forth between various story lines - the same technique we used in 'Nashville.' We started out with 14 at one time, and we dropped it to 11 or maybe nine, and sometimes I'll just use a piece of a story. There might be an incidental character in one of the stories, who becomes the main character in another of the stories. They're really all just personal stories. He was an alcoholic, and it's all about losers, and they're painful as hell. I've just literally finished the script last week. I've been working all summer on it. I have financing from Europe and need a little American financing, and if I can get it, we'll go. Not that American financing is that easy to get."

It's harder for you here than in Europe?

"My problem has always been that films are made to serve an existing market. Everybody's geared toward selling to that market that already exists. I don't do that well. I don't know how to do it. If I had to do a film like 'Lethal Weapon,' I'd oversleep. I wouldn't get to work on time. I'd get bored with it. I think it's fine that 'Lethal Weapon' and those things are made, but I think there should be room for me, too. I know there is, because every breakthrough film, every film that's changed the market, is always a film that nobody wanted to make - somebody's personal view. But it ain't easy. How did that song in 'Popeye' go? It ain't easy being me."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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