He's lost the plot again

Never one for telling it straight, Robert Altman's new movie is an exercise in 'spherical' film-making. Daniel Jeffreys interviews the maverick of US cinema.
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"I'd prefer not to involve myself with American culture," says Robert Altman, sitting tall behind his desk in New York's Delmonico Hotel where he has an apartment. "I think it's the worst, it's all exactly the same. I can take any American and drop them blindfolded in some city and it would take them 20 minutes to find out where they are."

Altman is the man the critics love to hate, the one other directors can never quite match. With M*A*S*H (1970) he turned the war picture inside out and created a cultural phenomenon. More recently The Player (1992) forced Hollywood to laugh nervously at itself, while Short Cuts (1993) earned him his third Oscar nomination.

His new film is Kansas City, a movie he describes as "an exercise in cold nostalgia". The script was written by Altman and his Short Cuts co-writer, Frank Barhydt. The film is a dark and dreamy tour of Depression- era America, its 24-hour "narrative" set against an aural backdrop of 1930s jazz. Variety described the film as "...another of Altman's merciless critiques of the illusions perpetuated by American culture".

"The New York and Hollywood critics don't like the film," says Altman. "The rest of the country seems to love it. I was brought up in Kansas City. That's where my basic chips were laid down but all the people I knew there as a child are gone. So the film is not to do so much with people but with spaces and places and memories of people."

Which means the 71-year-old director is still experimenting. "I'm trying to break the linearism of film, which is impossible because it's a linear thing - it will always be 90 minutes with a beginning, a middle and an end. I find that hard because the only end I can envisage is death. Anything else is just an artificial stopping point. I'm trying to make films that are more spherical and I think with Kansas City I succeeded more than in any other film."

The problem is Hollywood likes its films linear. That's one reason Altman spent most of the late Seventies and Eighties in the wilderness. Altman movie after Altman movie displeased the tastemaking establishment and failed at the box office. In 1982, Altman exiled himself to Paris and might have stayed there had it not been for The Player. He makes no apologies for his approach. If Altman movies are sometimes hard to follow, as larger- than-life characters float around a barely visible storyline, it's because Altman likes it that way. "I'm not very interested in plot," he says, his blue eyes steady as he leans forward to emphasise the point. "I'm more interested in something where more molecules are moving around. Character is what it's about. They are much more important than plot."

The big studios would have Altman take a more conventional approach. "Pursuing artistic vision on film in America can sometimes put everything you own at risk," says the director Alan Rudolph (Mrs Parker and her Vicious Circle), Altman's apprentice and friend. "Your best protection against losing what matters is creative control. Most moviemakers trade control for cash and convince themselves they've won, but with creative control maybe you never really lose. Without it, Altman won't even play."

"Maybe it's arrogance," Altman says, stretching back. Just behind him is the neon onstage logo from his production of Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. "I think that every artist knows that they don't know what they are doing but they believe in it and consequently they believe their right to defend it and control it, and why should somebody else tell me what happens in a scene? It's an intrusion, it's just rude. I say, go make your own movie."

The irony here is that Altman always takes suggestions from his actors, who are often allowed to build their own scenes, just one reason that actors love Altman far more than the critics. "Too many people ask what art is for," he fumes. "Well, it's for nothing. It's for you to look at, that's all, and if you don't like it, don't look at it. Commercialism has diminished the whole idea of art - it means that art is done for exactly the wrong reasons."

Altman especially despises mainstream critics: "They try to find ways to be complimentary to films like Mission: Impossible. They are after the teenage dollar. At this time in history, more than any other time, the critics are really a tool of the manufacturers. That has destroyed independent film production. The US critics savaged Pret-a-Porter (his 1994 satire on fashion) but it was just the film I set out to make. It was a Feydeau farce but the critics didn't understand that."

Altman loved Fargo and Stealing Beauty but mainstream Hollywood leaves him in a state of despair, especially this summer's blockbusters, Twister, the tornado movie and Independence Day, where humanity is almost obliterated. "You couldn't get me into either of these films with a truck and a chain," he says. "It's just more heralding of disaster and it has to keep getting bigger and bigger to make any impression. The mere murder of a child has become meaningless."

Having said that, a sense of impending disaster is present in all Altman's films. He insists it's not intentional. "Most of the time I'm working off sense memory; I'm not consciously trying to do anything. What I show people is me. All this stuff filters through me and it's vaguely going to have my shape. I'm like a cookie cutter."

No other director has ever measured such depth in surfaces. Altman's vision glistens in the everyday, the ordinary but particularly in his treatment of women. "I think I have some affinity with women," he says. "Something in me makes me respond to them. I think women are more complex; their defence mechanisms are more complex because they have to be."

After the peaks of The Player and Short Cuts, Altman is poised at the edge of another trough. Pret-a-Porter made money but upset Hollywood. Kansas City is unlikely to be a huge commercial success and Altman acknowledges that his next film will involve at least the appearance of a compromise.

"I want to make More Short Cuts. We have a script but the project is caught in a law suit with CIBY 2000 (who co-produced Kansas City)," he says, a look of frustration on his face. "I guess I'll have to go back back into the mainstream. I'll accept money for a commercial film and then I'll subvert it, I'll go underground."

n Channel 4's season of Altman films continues 21 July with 'M*A*S*H' and 'Fool for Love'