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Why We Miss Robert Altman: A Kansas Citian Looks Back at Our Local Hero

Robert Altman has his own star on Kansas City's walk of fame on 18th street.
by Dan Lybarger

If you were a movie geek living here in Kansas City, Robert Altman, who died Monday night at the age of 81, seemed less like a Hollywood celebrity and more like a remote deity. People around here uttered his name reverently even if they had never seen any of the movies he directed.

The Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee named the most prestigious award “The Bob” after him, and he, Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford (yes, her) all have stars on a sidewalk downtown.

At film buff gatherings, the room would become silent if you revealed that you were somehow related to the seven-time Oscar nominee. There wasn’t too much room for snobbery because most of us already knew who was actually in his working or biological family.

And those of us who actually did get to see the movies wondered if the name droppers would gush as loudly if they had seen Altman’s A Wedding or The Dumb Waiter.

For all the people around here who loved movies or wanted to make them, he represented a distant if possibly attainable ideal that someone from Kansas City could make an impact, even if you had to leave your hometown to do it.

Even the seemingly bad things we heard about him made him seem even more fascinating.
His unrepentantly open use of marijuana seemed like a slap in the face to “Just Say No” sanctimony, even if movies like Ready to Wear appeared to have been made under the influence.

His political pronouncements, like declaring he’d leave the country if George W. Bush became president, irked some. But the people who listened to Oliver North’s radio show, where the host called for a boycott of Altman’s films, weren’t the one’s who’d be going to them anyway.

Even Altman’s turkeys intrigued us. A couple of local critics named James Owen and Stephen Himes of, who didn’t care for his lesser efforts, launched a web-only “Altman Owes Us” campaign that was downright hilarious. While the two were happy to lambaste Quintet, they told me they would still have been honored to meet a fellow Midwesterner made good.

Altman initially left Kansas City when he was 19 years old and co-piloted a bomber in World War II. Nonetheless, he grew up here and later returned to make industrial films at the Calvin Company. It was there that he learned just about every technical aspect of filming and used his skills to make the low-budget 1957 gang violence yarn The Delinquents.

After selling the film to United Artists, Altman left town to become a prolific television director, helming everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Bonanza to Combat! While he’s often associated with filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese who make their marks as Young Turks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Altman didn’t break through until he was 45 years old with his bitter, anti-Vietnam allegory M*A*S*H.

From there he made a series of wildly uneven and occasionally terrific movies that twisted genres inside out and pushed film
technology to its limits. The dialog in Altman’s movies often sounds like a cacophony, with actors running over each others sentences. As a result, they talked more like real people.

He also embraced technology changes better than some of his younger peers. A Prairie Home Companion was actually shot in a digital format, but doesn’t have the grainy, flat look that a lot of movies made that way do.

With Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, Thieves Like Us and A Prairie Home Companion, Altman practically assaulted his viewers with information. A single viewing could not capture all of the complex relationships he and storylines he had created. A line of dialogue or an image in the background could change the entire point of the movie.

For example, in Gosford Park, pay close attention to the suspenders and waistband of Ryan Phillippe’s trousers. There’s something not quite right about them.

Altman has left a long trail of films, and it’s a real achievement if you’ve actually seen all of them. I certainly haven’t. Altman often worked with small distributors, and figuring out the rights to some of his projects was tricky once home video and DVD introduced them to new viewers.

In the wake of the successful but disappointing grosses Altman received for his 1980 movie Popeye, he made dozens of small projects that have only surfaced again recently.

Some like Secret Honor, his one-character film about Richard Nixon, are not well known, but should be. To get an idea of what that film is like, imagine Oliver Stone’s Nixon with twice the substance, none of the pretensions and ten times the entertainment value for a fraction of Stone’s gargantuan budget.

Considering how much Altman had inspired movie lovers in this town, you can imagine how excited I was when I had the chance to interview him back in 2001. He was getting ready to plug Gosford Park, and I regretted that I’d have to talk with him about a film I didn’t initially care for.

The night before I phoned him in Los Angeles, I watched the film again and was struck by how much better it played on a second viewing. So if I seem gushy in this conversation (that initially ran in The Lawrence (KS) Journal-World and on, you now know why.

Dan Lybarger: May I speak with Robert Altman?

Robert Altman: You are (I think my heart palpitations kicked in).

DL: Some people were surprised that you were willing to take on a British period film like this one, but this film has a lot of the overlapping dialogue and other trademarks we associate with you.

RA: I'm surprised that people are surprised. It's an English picture, but, my God, we're all so familiar with all that stuff, aren't we? I think most of American culture is all little brothers of the Brits.

DL: In many ways the world in the movie is as foreign for younger Brits as it is for us. A lot of the things you see the servants doing in the movie are a lost art.

RA: It is. Just the equipment, the artifacts that were invented and manufactured or made during that period were all about serving people. They were fantastic. That stuff doesn't exist any more. They're antiques. We had a butler, a housemaid, and a cook who were all in their late 80s who were all in the service during the time the picture takes place.

They were on the set all the time. I was determined to get it right technically, so I wouldn't be criticized by the English. "What's an American coming over here and doing a picture about our culture?" I wanted to be sure we were right about all that stuff. I had the time of my life doing it.

DL: What exactly did you like about shooting in that environment?

RA: It was the best experience I've ever had. I think it was the actors, always the actors, and the crews as well. They're just not like [Hollywood].

One, I didn't see any agents [laughs]. This film couldn't have been made in America. You couldn't have had that quality of actor standing around in that kind of ensemble. They'll say, 'I'll come in for six of seven days.' But we shot for ten weeks, and all those people were there almost all of the time.

DL: The logistics for that must have been tricky, nonetheless.

RA: We shot all of the upstairs stuff and the exteriors at the beginning. Then the servants' hall, that whole big area down on the bottom floor, was on the soundstage. That was a set, and the attic, where the servants' rooms were. That was a set. We couldn't shoot in sequence. It was great. It was fun.

DL: With all the awards and critics prizes you've won, it must be great to know there is a market for this kind of film.

RA: Is there one? I hope so [laughs]. I don't know.

DL: The social structure in the film is rigid but more complicated than it initially appears. The newly rich Sir William (Michael Gambon) is more comfortable with his servants than he is with his own family and in-laws.

RA: He's not of that class either. The social structure of the downstairs [where the servants operate] is really more complicated and structured than the upstairs [where the rich and the upper classes live]. The upstairs people really have less to do. They really are isolated and insulated in their little society. The downstairs, which mimics that society, is more complicated. There's more stratas [sic] in it.

DL: In some ways this structure reminds me of Nashville.

RA: My films all come through me. They all pass through me, so they're going to all have vaguely the same shape. Those things are just going to happen. There are similarities. There's no question about it.

DL: Gosford Park isn't the only movie you've made that's far from your roots in Kansas City. You've only done two movies there (1957's The Delinquents and 1996's Kansas City) and a lot of your other movies are set in places where you'd come in as an outsider.

RA: I was an outsider in Kansas City, the jazz film. I hadn't been to Kansas City for years. I was visiting some place between my father's stories and my memory. I love that film. My films have a terrible time in Kansas City. They've never been really successful there. I don't know why that is except it always seems that way. You can't go home again.

DL: It is there with the Calvin Company, where you learned a lot of your trade. For those industrial films, you had to learn all of the technical skills. Other noteworthy filmmakers never did. Kurosawa, for example, claimed he couldn't handle a still camera.

RA: I learned all that stuff. It's part of the tools. It's like a painter. If you're going to paint a mural, the more you know about the paint, the brushes and all the various tools you have, the easier it'll be for you to get your idea across.

DL: Sound has been one of your specialties. You shift emphasis by adjusting the volume of certain noises or lines instead of moving the camera.

RA: The sound is very important to us to what we communicate. What we see and what we hear may come at different times. We're able to split our senses and use them all. They're all feeding information to our brains, and our brain is ending up with an opinion.

I just try to get the audience to do the same thing and not have it served up for them. With so much television, everything is served up. A guy can sit there and get up in the middle of a television drama and get a beer and when he gets back, he says, "Did he kill her yet?" because he knows what's going to happen. He doesn't even really have to witness it.

There's no surprise, and these things are told six or seven times to you. I try to set a film up to put the audience on notice very, very early that you'd better pay attention or you're going to miss it. Or if you don't want to pay attention, you'd just as well leave because you're not going to like the movie.

DL: Speaking of that, it took me a couple of viewings to appreciate Gosford Park.

RA: You have to see it twice. That's the problem. The first time you see it, I'm talking about a film that's any good, you're playing whodunit. By the time you're through the plot or the whodunit part of it—I'm not referring to the murder in Gosford Park; I'm talking about every little detail; then you go to see it again, and you're able to look at the corners and into the detailing of it, and you really see a different film.

DL: It seems a lot funnier the second time around.

RA: It is funnier. There's lines in it that you can't possibly get the first time because you don't know where they're going. There's lots of little details. That's the problem with movies. The convention is you see the movie once, and you've got to get it all. So they keep it pretty simple, it's not hard to get. I just feel there's so many interesting things going on in the process of doing what the plot is that are much more interesting than the plot [itself]. There's only six plots.

I know it's defeating the success of these films by doing this, but I just have to say, if you like a film, any film, you should go back and see it again, and you'll see a different film. You go to see it a third time, and your own life experiences will change a little bit. That's not the phrase I hear and have heard all of my life, and it distresses me, and I hate it is: "We're going to see so-and-so tonight. Do you want to go?" And they say, "No, I've seen it." Well, that's too bad that we accept that if you've seen it, you've taken two hours out of your life and looked at it, and everything is digestible and understandable in that two hours, than it's really been a waste of your time.

DL: You still seem eager to take those kinds of risks with your films, even if the market is saturated with popcorn flicks.

RA: The day I stop taking risks is the day I'll stop working. I have no interest in those films. I'd have nothing to officer. I couldn't do one of those films because I'd be afraid I'd be late for work (laughs).

DL: One of my favorite movies of yours is Secret Honor, your one-character biopic on Nixon.

RA: I do, too. Thank you. I love that Secret Honor picture. That's a strange movie. That couldn't possibly succeed in a commercial world. But, who cares?

DL: It does fly in the face of your reputation as an ensemble specialist.

RA: I use that all the time. We had a big premiere for Gosford Park, and it was given by Women in Film. They gave me an honor that night. I said, "I don't make films with women all the time. I made one film with one man, and it's probably one of my best films."

DL: You had made some controversial remarks about Hollywood and a possible relationship with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Could you explain what you've said and how your own movies figure into this statement?

RA: When I said that about the 9-11 thing, I didn't exclude myself although it was reported that way. They came out and said, "Altman blames Hollywood." Once again, I'm in the doghouse. I didn't say that. I said WE all have to look at what we've done and what we do and hold ourselves responsible for this sort thing because I think we did make the training film for those guys. There's still films that will never be released now I hope about hijacking and things like that.

This body count thing. I remember some film where DeNiro and Pacino (Michael Mann's Heat) and a bunch of stars were in it, and there were cops and robbers. There were forty policemen killed in a holdup that went awry. And then the next day, they're talking and there's nothing in the newspaper about it. Forty policemen were killed in Los Angeles, and you never heard any more about it. That's just ridiculous.

I think it's irresponsible. When eight-year-old and nine-year-old kids see those things, they can't make those distinctions. They just assume that's the way you do things. They think you can kill somebody, and it doesn't cause any harm. These are people in black suits that don't have any identity. They don't have any children, any parents, wives or friends. They're just ciphers. I think that's terrible, and we have to take responsibility for putting that kind of behavior in people's minds. If I say it, I just get in serious trouble for it. I included myself in that just as much as I did anybody else. But I do think that as a culture we have to be responsible.

DL: I'm an aficionado of DVD extras. You've been willing to do audio commentaries for some of your older movies on DVD, like Nashville and M*A*S*H. Are you going to do any more?

RA: I just did the McCabe track two days ago. I tell those guys when I do them, I don't like to do them because I don't know what the reason for it is. I feel very much like a real estate salesman saying, "This is the best bathroom. Here is the bedroom. These stairs lead up to the so-and-so." I'm telling you things that you're seeing.

For me to just talk or bring up an incident or something that occurred to me, by the time I finish another sentence, it's on to another scene. It's very hard to do those things, I think. I don't know what the reason is. I don't know that I like them, but I'll continue to do them. I really think that nobody sits down and listens to everything. They just pick up little details. I don't know. I think we did a pretty good job on the McCabe thing. It's the first one of those I went away feeling pretty good about. I've got another one to do.

DL: DVD has put a new lease on life for a lot of your older films.

RA: They're now all starting to come out because it gives life to these films. Otherwise they'd all turn to dust. It's great.

DL: It's interesting that in The Player and in Nashville, you skewer the artists as much as you do the executives.

RA: Oh, are there very many artists around? The Player is a really soft indictment. You can certainly see the
bulge in the side of my mouth, which discloses the tongue in my cheek. It's much, much worse than that. Much, much worse. It was fun, and I was able to get into different kinds of things in the corners of the film.

DL: In some way the fact that you were allowed to make The Player seems like heresy because you have executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) getting away with murder.

RA: The fact that I was allowed to make it shows you how really corrupt it is because they don't really give a shit what you say, if you can sell it. The ultimate choice of where the money goes to make these different films is where they think they can get money back. Basically, in some other city like Denver, where [Viacom chairman] Sumner Redstone and these guys live, these companies, these corporations are only in it in pursuit of profit. They're all accountants.

In the film business, they have to deal with artists. Because they can't do it. We say that in The Player. "If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here." The closest they come to it is with animation, but they've got other artists creating those characters. Ultimately, the accountants can't do this kind of business. They can't be in this film business without the artists. Even television.

DL: Conversely, it's rare that you have an artist like Charlie Chaplin who could manage money as well as he could make films.

RA: That was in a different time. That was a time when film was affordable. It costs so much money now. It has to come from some place else, some bank, and that bank is only in the business of making money. If they don't make money, they don't do it. They have to use the artists. The artists have to pander to them, and it's just big conundrum.

DL: Despite these obstacles, you are still making films.

RA: I love it. I wouldn't do anything else. There's not a filmmaker who has ever lived or lives today who has had a better shake than I have. I've done forty films, and they've all been of my own choosing. I've had the final cut on all of them. That's not to say that people haven't tried to take them away from me or that people haven't squashed them and sat on them and not let them out.

From my standpoint, it's been a great career. It is a great career because I do what occurs to me, and I'm able to do it. I've never been without a film. So I don't have any complaints other than the fact that I must speak out about what the basic philosophy of this industry is to sell tickets to seventeen-year-olds. Either the parents have got to stop giving them money, or maybe after this 9-11 event, it'll sober people up a bit, and maybe there won't be so many Arnold Schwarzenegger blah-blah-blah films.

DL: It's a little ironic that he got one of his early gigs in The Long Goodbye.

RA: Oh, yes. I know. He never talks about it though.

DL: That reminds me of something that former Twentieth Century Fox executive Bill Mechanic said. He warned that making only popcorn films can actually hurt a studio's bottom line because bad action movies have no shelf life, whereas more unusual films can sometimes perform better during late marketing or video.

RA: That's very rare in these studios. Most of them think their jobs are only going to last about a week…and I hope they're right. Everything is just for the moment. Nobody thinks about the shelf life or the late marketing. Look what's happening to my films now. They do have the DVDs, but nobody can gather those all under one label.

They're all owned by weird little people that end up owning the negative. It's shame that, whether it's me or Paul Thomas Anderson or Budd Boetticher— who died just recently and made some terrific films—or anybody, but they're owned by all these different companies, and now everything's owned mostly by European companies. I've chased down everything except Images, and I finally found that the negative of that is owned by I think a French company.

DL: It might interest you to know that The Long Goodbye recently screened in Kansas City to a pretty good crowd.

RA: Oh, really. That really thrills me.

DL: They even had one of the Jack Davis posters that made fun of your Hollywood hipster image.

RA: That was a good poster. When The Long Goodbyeopened in Los Angeles with kind of a conventional ad showing Elliot Gould with a .45 stuck in his hand, cigarette hanging from his mouth and a blonde behind him, the film did not do well because they tried to sell Elliot Gould as Humphrey Bogart. We stopped it and said, "This is not working."

We went to Jack Davis of Mad Magazine, and then when we opened in New York, it was a big hit. That film, if we'd started that way, probably would have been a commercially successful film.

DL: I've met some of your relatives in Kansas City. They told me Gosford Park is one of the first films of yours they can relate to.

RA: In Kansas City, my films aren't very popular. I am. My films aren't. They don't know about most of them. I'll never forget. I went to visit my grandmother in the 50s, and I was doing the Bonanza television show. I went through Kansas City. "Grandma, I've got a Bonanza on tonight." That's when they were on Saturday night, opposite of Perry Mason.

She said, "Boy, we're going to see that. That's Saturday night." We came back on the Sunday, and I said, "Did you see my Bonanza?" She said, "Oh, boy we saw it. There your name was: 'Robert Altman.' It was just wonderful." I said, "Did you like it?" She said, "We didn’t see the show. We never miss Perry Mason. We watched long enough to see your name, and then we switched over to Perry Mason." I thought, "There it is." There's no way to have any arguments or discussions about that.

After I talked with Altman, I had the pleasure of seeing Gosford Park with some of his family. It was one of the coolest screenings I have ever attended.

We had publicists dressed as maids and butlers, and they were really curious to know what I thought of “Bob,” the relative they didn’t get to see very often.

I told Altman’s sister that I found her brother pleasant and refreshingly blunt.

“We’re all like that,” she said matter-of-factly. “Sometimes it’s for the best; sometimes it isn’t.”

Altman’s sharp tongue helped create some really great movies and inspired a lot of people here in Kansas City and anywhere that people enjoy movies that challenge their viewers. Altman’s plain-spoken but audacious approach to cinema is still with us even if he, regrettably, isn’t.

My fellow HBS Monkey Peter Sobczynski has another fine tribute to Altman here.

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originally posted: 11/22/06 15:32:23
last updated: 12/06/06 17:25:24
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