Remembering Altman

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(HOST) When he heard that Robert Altman had died, commentator Jay Craven was reminded of a chance encounter he once had with the great director.

(CRAVEN) I’ll never forget the world premiere screening for my first feature film, “Where the Rivers Flow North.” It was at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival market and I’d arrived on an overnight flight lugging the sixty-pound film print for a mad dash straight to the projection booth. I arrived with thirty-five minutes to spare.

After the screening, I wandered around Cannes feeling alone amidst all the glitter – with superstars in black tie and evening gowns promenading to the palatial main theater amidst a sea of red carpet and costumed heralds playing celestial trumpets.

Like a stray kid outside a fancy store with his nose pressed against the glass, I caught a glimpse of Jane Campion, Steven Soderbergh, and Louis Malle; a seventy-five foot inflatable Schwartzenegger floated a hundred yards off the beach.

Heading back to my boarding house, I spied a familiar face at a grand outdoor bar. It was maverick film director Robert Altman, standing alone having a drink. I approached him cautiously. “I loved ‘The Player,'” I said. “How it says even the good guys in the movie business are bad.”

Altman laughed. “It doesn’t even scratch the surface,” he said. Then he made a grand gesture. “Just look around us. We could make the sequel right here at the Majestic Bar.”

Altman asked about my film. I told him my cinematographer and I watched his poetic western, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” for the look and feel of “Rivers.” He took the compliment and I described my plans for “A Stranger in the Kingdom” with its odd character ensemble. I told him I was thinking of casting Henry Gibson, who shines in Altman’s “Nashville.”

Altman decried fast-buck operators in the movie business – and its absence of visionaries or long-term perspective. That afternoon in Cannes, he offered a sober warning. “In Hollywood,” he said, “it’s considered noble to make promises you have no intention of keeping. Remember that and you may not lose your mind or your passion.”

No one did more to inspire American independent filmmaking than Robert Altman. His innovative and improvisational pictures tackled quintessentially American themes with unparalleled potency and imagination. They defined an era and stimulated new ways of thinking and seeing and even hearing, given his pioneering use of overlapping dialogue.

Like any director, Altman had his share of clunkers films like “Health,” and “Quintet” don’t especially work for me. Critic Pauline Kael wrote: “When Altman succeeds, he magically pulls a rabbit out of his hat. When he fails, it looks as if he never had anything in that hat.”

Altman was considered “difficult” by studio executives and screenwriters but actors loved him for the freedom he gave them.

“He was a magician a conjurer,” said Richard Gere. “He was the deepest ocean and the lightest feather.”

A “riverboat gambler,” said Eliot Gould, “who dared show life taking its course.”

It’s hard to imagine American film without the prospect of the next Altman picture – but we’ll have to try.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.

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