Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the "Action Painter" of American Cinema

By Tibbetts, John C | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1992 | Go to article overview

Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the "Action Painter" of American Cinema


Tibbetts, John C, Literature/Film Quarterly


"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. 'They used to throw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!"

Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it; and he made his first movies there (which is perhaps the same thing). Now, an acclaimed world-class filmmaker, he has returned to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Kansas City Film Commission in the ballroom of the downtown Crown Center Westin hotel. There is a sense of euphoria in the air that has been growing during the three days of nonstop screenings of sixteen Altman films, press conferences, workshops with area filmmakers and reunions with family members. Altman and his hometown are both on a roll these days. He is fresh on the heels of his latest triumph, Vincent and Théo; and Kansas City itself is basking in the glow of the successful completion of two recent theatrical films that had been shot in the area-the prestigious Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and the forthcoming Article 99.

"This town and I will have to get together again," he told a press gathering earlier that day. "I haven't shot a film here since The Delinquents in 1955-which I'd rather not talk about! But the future of filmmaking is here in communities like this. We help each other. Companies have to figure things now down to the split penny. We go where it's cheapest and where the artist can get the most return for his time. When I leave here I'll have a whole box of scripts under my arm." He paused with an air of mock drama. He waited a few beats, then-"We'll have to see."

Altman is relaxed, accessible and talkative. His Buffalo Bill beard is neatly trimmed. A white shirt and tie peek out from his zippered navy-blue jacket. He hardly seems the same hard-charging, hard-drinking maverick that barnstormed his way through movie after movie in the early 1970s. With M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, he was a prime architect-with other young filmmakers like Paul Mazursky, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese-of what Diane Jacobs has called the "Hollywood Renaissance." He was called a "prairie Buddha" by his associates. He referred to himself as the "action painter" of American films. Controversies, disputes, awards and brickbats trailed in his wake. College students appointed him their Viet Nam-era voice. Critics debated his unorthodox, looping and eliptical style. While Stanley Kauffman called him a pretentious blunderer, Pauline Kael praised his idiosyncracies: "Altman has to introduce an element of risk on top of the risks that all directors take," she wrote in 1981. There was always something protean, even relentless about him. After the failure of Popeye in 1980, the big studios rejected him, but he kept going, staging operas at colleges, shooting modest projects like Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 16mm, and filming plays for cable television. Meanwhile-although Altman wasn't counting-the awards were piling up. There were numerous "Best Film" and "Best Director" awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the Venice Film Festival (a Grand Prix for Streamers).

"I haven't been back to K.C. in almost IS years now, I guess; and I come back and don't see the same city." We are talking together in the Presidential Suite on the 17th floor of the Crown Center Westin hotel. The rooftops, spires and glass ramparts are spread out below us in the late afternoon sun. We have an hour to spend before he greets a sold-out house for a filmmaking workshop. "But I smell it and I feel it," he continues. "This is where I got my 'chips,' my attitudes. I lived on West 68th Street and went to several schools-Rockhurst, Southwest High School, Wentworth Military Academy, and then did a hitch in the Air Force, where I was a co-pilot of B-24 bombers.

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