Arts: Still a player

At 74, the legendary director Robert Altman is back again. He talks to Andrew Gumbel about the studios and not selling out

Robert Altman is back. Again. For the third time - or is it the fourth? - in his dazzling but uneven career, this most mercurial of American film-makers has returned to popular favour after a run of indifferent critical notices and box-office failures.

Or at least that is the theory. It is certainly true that Cookie's Fortune, a comedy of social manners set in the American Deep South, has received unusually warm notices since its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. A welcome return to form, the critics have chimed - almost in unison - and a film suffused with a human warmth unusual for this most unforgiving and sharply satirical of directors. Buoyed by such notices, Cookie's Fortune has also proved to be the most profitable Altman film in the United States since... well, since his last comeback movie, The Player, in 1992.

As usual with Altman, though, such flip assessments of his fluctuating fortunes tend to be deceptive. He would argue that he never really went away. Since The Player, he has made Short Cuts, his kaleidoscopic portrait of Los Angeles and one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s; Pret a Porter, a send-up of the fashion world that appalled the models and designers who collaborated on it but is not without its staunch admirers; Kansas City, a beguiling period piece about jazz and gangsters in the home town of his childhood that he considers as good a film as he's ever made; and The Gingerbread Man, a moody thriller based loosely on a John Grisham story that was little seen because of a raging dispute over its distribution.

Not a bad record for a film-maker supposedly in limbo for the past seven years. Not only has he kept working, he has built up - almost more than in his heyday in the 1970s - a semi-mythical reputation that has turned him into a hero to younger film-makers and caused some of the finest actors in the business to glow with excitement at the prospect of working for him. "There isn't a director alive that has had a better shake than I have," Altman acknowledges. "I've never worked on a project that was not of my choosing. Never. I've written most of my material, and what I've not written myself I've rewritten to suit my purposes without anyone telling me what to do."

Cookie's Fortune is no exception. Based on an original screenplay by Anne Rapp, a former Hollywood script supervisor who impressed Altman with a series of short stories she composed on a writing sabbatical, it bears many of the director's hallmarks - a strong sense of place, close character observation, an emphasis on the quirky and the outrageous, and an interlocking, multifaceted structure that provides an ideal showcase for the large ensemble cast including Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Ned Beatty and Chris O'Donnell.

The story is set in the small Mississippi town of Holly Springs, a community where brooding over-familiarity and a strict sense of social order prove stifling, either pressing the characters into silent submission or else blinding them to the suffering of others and condemning them to unwitting displays of their own hypocrisy.

Its startling point of departure is a suicide. When the ageing, somewhat dotty Cookie, movingly played by Patricia Neal, shoots herself with one of her late husband's antique pistols, she unwittingly upsets the rules of her own family's pride. Her overbearing niece Camille (Close) is as determined to secure the old lady's worldly goods as she is to cover up the shame of suicide, so she conspires with her dimwitted sister Cora (Moore) to make Cookie's death look like murder.

Together, they allow suspicion to fall on the amiably drunken family orderly Willis (Charles Dutton) so that they can get him out of the house they now consider to be theirs. As plot twist follows plot twist, the townsfolk act as a kind of theatrical chorus witnessing the revelation of one family secret after another - not least because most of them feature in Camille's amateur production of Oscar Wilde's Salome in the local church. By the end there is a resolution of sorts, even a happy ending, but it is a resolution as deeply dysfunctional as the community as a whole.

Treated differently, the material might seem morbid, or an excuse to fire cheap shots at the bumbling backwardness of the South. But Altman allows the crescendo of dramatic revelations to add depth and pathos to the characters in a way that some of his more biting social satires arguably have not. The film brings out layers of subtlety hardly seen in the cinema any more - accounting, perhaps, for the positive critical reaction, but leading also to some hilariously wrongheaded misreadings. One critic proclaimed that Cookie's Fortune was somehow a positive affirmation of human life in a lovable if eccentric small town, the sort of idiocy Altman has always loved to skewer, on screen and off.

"I'm overwhelmed by these sorts of statements," he says. "People keep writing that the film is so light, it can't be a really important film. What's so light about this compared, say, to McCabe and Mrs Miller?"

It's an apposite response. When McCabe and Mrs Miller, Altman's startling deconstruction of the western, came out in 1971 it was met by a wall of critical incomprehension and bombed at the box-office. More than a quarter of a century later, it pops up frequently in lists of the greatest films ever made.

"If I made a film that everybody liked I probably couldn't make any more films," Altman reflects. And in that statement lies the tenacity that has guaranteed his survival as an independent film-maker through good times and bad. His raw intelligence and stylistic originality may have pushed the definition of mass entertainment to its limit, but they have also made him a popular man to work for in this crass marketing-driven age.

Actors love him because he gives them full rein to improvise, and crews love him because he treats them as intelligent human beings. An Altman set is like a large gathering of friends, with everyone encouraged to watch rushes and offer comments before heading off to the daily round of parties.

It's a long way from the studios and their obsession with the bottom line, but Altman hasn't made a studio film since Popeye in 1980, and claims that he doesn't even know the names of the studio heads any more. "I don't hate them," he insists, "I just don't know them."

If Cookie's Fortune appears somewhat softer in its satirical barbs than, say, Nashville or A Wedding, it is perhaps because Altman has mellowed both as an artist and a person. In his more rambunctious past, Altman not only fought tooth and nail to make the films he wanted, he was also notorious for shouting and occasionally throwing punches at executives to get his way. Bob Altman was not a man to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.

Now, at 74, he is just as determined in his artistic purpose, but comes across in interview as both gentle and gentlemanly, his piercing blue eyes burning brightest when talking about the craft he loves. He talks with relish about a scene late in Cookie's Fortune in which Julianne Moore's character is sitting on the porch of her house with the door open behind her. The door adds a layer of subtlety to her confused character because, later on, she tells her sister that she didn't have a key to get in - a line that can be read either as sheer confusion or deep deviousness. Most audiences don't even notice the nuance.

Another sign of mellowing is his diminished determination to be shockingly new in every film. "I used to make it a trait that I would never repeat myself. I was very proud to think that you couldn't tell these films were all made by the same guy," he says. "Now they all seem to me to be chapters of the same book."

Instead of reacting to his own commercial successes by pursuing experimental, deeply idiosyncratic paths (as he did after M*A*S*H and again after Nashville) he now appears concerned above all to make as many good films as possible. His next project is another Anne Rapp script, this one about a philandering doctor called Dr T and the Women. Richard Gere is set to star.

Being less radical, however, does not mean selling out. Even when adapting John Grisham, Altman did not give up on his trademark nonlinear narrative, overlapping plotlines and deeply ambiguous characterisation. Cinema should be a collaborative experience, he believes, in which the audience should interact with the open-ended on-screen structure and "close" it through reflection and the subjectivity of their own experience.

"If you look back at films from the 1930s and 1940s, a lot of the technique seems awfully over-literal to us - lots of shots of people crossing the street and driving around corners," he says. "I imagine people will one day look at today's films and think them just as old-fashioned." And he looks up, his eyes expressing a small, firm hope that when people consider the film-makers who helped change our perception of cinema at the turn of the millennium, Robert Altman's name will be high among them.

`Cookie's Fortune' opens on Friday

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