With Altman, no matter how many movies have left me scratching my head, or simply dissatisfied – The Company, The Gingerbread Man, 3 Women, California Split, to name a few – I’ve never reached that place where I knew that he had nothing more to show me. For example, I’d seen a little of Tanner ‘88, which I liked okay, and a few months ago I picked up the sequel, Tanner on Tanner. By the end of an hour I was so bored I stopped. But just before I did, there was a moment – Tanner’s daughter (Cynthia Nixon) and her crew were singing “Exercise Your Right to Vote” in a van headed to one of the political conventions; the camera moves around the van, and she looks at it and smiles.
And immediately that image burned itself into my head; I’m not sure why. Maybe because it captured how much fun a road trip can be. And I thought – no one else gets stuff like this on film. That whole project is a narrative disaster, and I was completely bored, but the amazing thing is that I’m willing to give that movie another shot – I would rent it again, in the right mood, because there’s always something else to notice in Altman’s movies. That’s why I’d rather devote time to re-watching an Altman disaster than another Eastwood or Scorsese or Coen Brothers “success.”
Michael Tolkin, the author of the book and the screenplay for The Player (which Altman, of course, completely changed), says this well: “He has a few really great movies and a lot of films that are of great interest and are worth watching and watching again, but don’t fully work on the terms on which they could have worked because of his disdain for story.” Tolkin doesn’t specify which ones he thinks are great – I’ve never been as taken with Nashville as other people; I think McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been in the mood to see Gosford Park for a third time.
The Tolkin quote is from Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book, Robert Altman: An Oral Biography. The book is mostly excerpts from hundreds of interviews - with Altman himself, members of his flight crew in WWII, his family, ex-wives and actors and producers – all arranged to tell the story of his life, with a little help from newspaper articles and reviews (this would be an interesting way to narrate a novel, by the way). I picked up the book because I’d heard a little about Altman’s creative method – how much freedom he gave actors to create their own parts, write their own songs and monologues, change the plot and course of a scene (much to the annoyance of the screenwriter) – and was curious how it worked.
Here’s Anne Rapp, an author and screenwriter that Altman met near the end of his career:
Bob has a reputation as being difficult on writers. You won’t hear that from me. I would show him something, and if I did nine things horrible and there was one little seed, one little character, one line that worked, his eyes would light up and he’d say, “That’s it, you hit the nail right there! Not take that and go write that.”“I felt like a good writer for the three years I was with Bob,” Rapp says. “I have had nothing but doubts since.”
I would walk out of his office and feel like I kicked ass. Any other Hollywood meeting I was in, they’d rake you over the coals about those nine things you did wrong. Bob had that ability to make you walk out of his office and feel like running back to your computer. He had an amazing way of dealing with artists in vulnerable positions.
Much of the first half of the book is devoted to enfant terrible behavior, long past the acceptable age – drinking and cheating on wives and punching people into pools. Altman focused most of his anger on people on the business end of things: producers and publicists and executives (not that this is any excuse). Actors, however, were treated with nothing but consideration, and the book is filled with testimonies of the subtle advice he could give – or, sometimes, refuse to give – and how open he was to input from absolutely anyone on the set.
The stunning end of California Split was George Segal’s idea, for example, and Altman agreed to his suggestion, which Columbia said “cost them ten million dollars” (the screenwriter still seems upset about it). I don’t know if it’s a good ending, but I’ve never forgotten it or stopped thinking about what it might mean. And the girl whose nose gets smashed in The Long Goodbye – probably the most disturbing scene in any of his movies – was just a waitress that Altman met while they were filming, and then decided to insert the sequence into the film.
Altman has a gift, like Dylan, for suggestive incoherence (they’re also both capable of garden variety incoherence) and it’s often hard to get a handle on Altman’s people because he continually plays against the grain of the material. The film gives you a mess of information, and you simply have to work this character out in your head. An artist who tries this method had better be able to pull off coherence as well, though – Dylan certainly could, and Altman was a fine television director before he made any of his movies.
Zuckoff tries the same thing in this book: contradictory versions of stories nestle up against each other, with no attempt to sort them out, and different facets of Altman’s personality are described by the people that forgive him and those who don’t. “He was different,” Alan Rudolph says, “and it’ll take your book to try and define it, and it will be elusive and you’ll never get to the center of it because you shouldn’t be able to.”
The book is full of wonderful material, and Zuckoff deserves credit for his sense of how to organize it. He groups quotes that play off each other, and sets up separate chapters for material that needs its own space: on Altman’s relationships with his children, for example, and his slightly poisonous collaboration with a woman named Scotty Bushnell. I gobbled up the book in three days, and it’s one of the few biographies I might want to pick up again.
I had an idea while I was reading it – one that's occurred to me before when thinking about how Shakespeare operated – that certain art forms thrive on a level of carelessness. Altman never took a project he didn’t care about, and once he got something down to his satisfaction he absolutely refused to change it – but he also didn’t agonize. He worked with concentration but very quickly, got stuff in a couple of takes, make huge changes based on a gut feeling or a suggestion, and then moved on to the next project.
I’ve been on one set before, and was slightly horrified at the speed and borderline heedlessness with which things move – but I realize now that this is a healthy part of a medium which I enjoy but can’t get totally comfortable with. If a novelist or a poet spends years and years on a book, there’s a reasonable chance that the time has been well spent. But when a musician, say, is about to release an album that he's spent a decade agonizing over, you can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be bad. Additional time doesn’t ripen certain kinds of art, but encourages spoilage. So make a virtue out of accidents, embrace imperfection, and then move on – at least if you’re making movies.
Altman said this beautifully in the speech he gave at the Oscars for his Lifetime Achievement Award, which Zuckoff includes in the biography:
I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends and you get them down there and you say – you build this beautiful structure, several of you, and then you sit back and you watch the tide come in, have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away. And that sand castle remains in your mind. Now, I've built about forty of them and I never tire of it. No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film that I didn't choose or develop. I love filmmaking. It has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition. And for that, I'm forever grateful.