`SHORT Cuts" was chosen to open the New York Film Festival on
Oct. 1, adding to the glitter that Robert Altman's new film had
acquired by sharing the top prize at the Venice Film Festival a
By now, there has been so much positive publicity about Altman
and "Short Cuts" that the inevitable backlash has already set in.
Several publications have recently attacked the movie and the
68-year-old director. The most recent slam came from Robert Coles
in last Sunday's New York Times, which had previously run a glowing
review by Vincent Canby.
Coles accused the movie of having a "mean and bitter attitude
toward women" and described the intricately staged, three-hour
dance as having an "almost frenzied pace" and being "relentless in
its cynical, sardonic assault on anyone and everyone."
The attack from the respected scholar-activist came as a
surprise to those of us who found the women characters in "Short
Cuts" to be much stronger and more moral than the men, the pace to
be measured and the tone, while clearly sardonic, to be generally
affectionate toward the characters. But there is nothing surprising
about someone taking the work of this very personal director very
"There will be slings and arrows," Altman remarked in an
interview after the movie was screened at the Film Festival. "We'll
survive them, as long as they are not too many."
For Altman, arguably America's greatest living movie director,
surviving slings and arrows has been part of the price of artistic
integrity for many years. At times, the wounds have been so severe
he has been left for dead, at least by the big-time movie business.
Three years ago, Robert Altman was living and working in
Europe, not entirely by choice. It had been several years since he
had made a feature film in America, and a decade and a half since
his 1975 tour-de-force "Nashville" had culminated a remarkable
five-year period that included such brillant, quirky Altman films
as "M*A*S*H," "Brewster McCloud," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The
Long Goodbye" and "California Split."
Most critics and movie buffs loved Altman's work, and wanted
more. But the Hollywood movie establishment did not get along very
well with the sometimes crusty, fiercely independent Altman, who
had served his initial apprenticeship in his hometown of Kansas
City, making industrial films, and then had worked for a decade on
television shows like "Bonanza" and "Combat."
Altman was in his mid-40s by the time he made "M*A*S*H," his
first major movie, and was never part of any influential Hollywood
clique. His major disciple, Alan Rudolph, is regarded as even less
commercially viable than Altman .
By the early 1980s, the men who ran American movie studios had
decided Altman was washed up, an overly demanding, overly arty
director whose successes made very little money, and whose failures
were financial disasters.
Definitely in that latter category was his surrealistic
"Popeye," starring a many-voiced young comedian named Robin
Williams. It was a major box-office flop in 1980 and seemed to end
Altman's career as a director of major feature films.
Ten years later, after a decade of small independent film and
television projects, Altman was in exile in France, where he had
just finished making "Vincent and Theo."
"Vincent and Theo" may well be the best movie ever made about
an artist, but it is very long, and unflinching in its presentation
of Vincent van Gogh's bouts of depression and distinct lack of
social graces. It is definitely not a candidate for that Hollywood
staple, "the feel-good movie."
In February of 1990, somewhat depressed by his prospects,
Altman flew from Paris to Los Angeles on business. It was an
11-hour direct flight, and he took with him a bag of books gathered
by a friend.
"I like short stories," he recalled, "and three or four of the
books were collections of stories by Raymond Carver. …