Cinemagoers won't know how to react to Alan Rudolph's new film `Afterglow' - which is just what he wants. James Mottram on a director who delights in life's contradictions
If Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman are the Grandfathers of Modern American Cinema, Alan Rudolph is the eccentric Great Uncle.

A director with a flare for investing in his work an other-worldly quality, Rudolph has been treading his own path for 20 years now. His fifteenth film, Afterglow, marks an advance on his last, the flawed Dorothy Parker biopic, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, in accomplishment, at least, if not kudos.

"I'm still kinda a B-list director," says the 55-year-old, rather modestly. "I'm not even that high. The first time I tried to get a movie made in the Hollywood system, many years ago, my then agent said to me: `There are yes lists and no lists, and you aren't even on the no lists.'"

A product of this exclusion, Afterglow is a contemporary fable, following the fates of two marriages that intersect in Montreal. Nick Nolte is Lucky Mann, a lecherous odd-job man who seductively becomes housewives' choice. Wife Julie Christie, a B-movie actress who watches her own films, looks on, suffering from the past loss of their child.

When Lucky forces his way into the lives of a young corporate shark-cum- control freak (an almost unrecognisable Jonny Lee Miller) and his clucky, needy wife (Lara Flynn Boyle), partner-swapping is inevitable.

"When it starts, everyone's at an emotional crossroads," says Rudolph. "You have four characters in different emotional time zones. One is living in the past, one in the present, one in the future and one in this void," says Rudolph. Dealing with displacement and emotional dependence, Rudolph ironically frames his people through a deliciously soft-focus lens.

"I'd say that contradiction and paradox are essential. Paul Newman saw Afterglow at the only New York screening. He came to me and said: `This is either the most perversely sweet movie I've ever seen or the most sweetly perverse.' The intention of the film was that at any given moment you can feel simultaneously humorous and serious, familiar and strange."

Rudolph recounts tales of people emerging from screenings in tears, claiming they haven't had so much fun in ages, while others felt they'd laughed in all the wrong places. He delights in these reactions. "In America, the press kit calls this `a romantic comedy'. If it's that, then it's also `a serious farce'. The goal is to make a film so you can't describe it - indescribable."

Making his film debut aged only six years old - in his father Oscar's Lenny Bruce-scripted children's sci-fi, Rocker Man, Rudolph grew up in Los Angeles (a city he can no longer afford to live in). Studying accounting at UCLA, he went on to be accepted for the prestigious Director's Guild Producers Programme for assistant directors. By 1970, aged just 24, he became an assistant director, and two years later was approached by Altman to work on The Long Goodbye.

The collaboration bore fruit twice more: Nashville and California Split, and the pair went on to write the screenplay Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Altman, in turn, produced Rudolph's first feature, in 1977, the quirky Welcome to LA and his second, Remember My Name.

Adopting some Altman traits - particularly regular "cast" members (Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin J O'Connor) - Rudolph found little success with box office or audience. Producing stylistically idiosyncratic pieces (from political thriller Endangered Species to rock'n'roll comedy Roadie), Rudolph repeatedly, if inadvertently, captures something of the off-beat reality of the Ealing studio films he admired as a youth.

Having emerged from the shadow of his mentor during the mid to late Eighties - when Altman fell from favour and Rudolph regularly churned out masterpieces in miniature (Choose Me, Equinox, The Moderns) - the director even brushed close to Hollywood with Mortal Thoughts, a grimly funny murder-mystery featuring hot couple Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

Released after the success of Ghost and Die Hard 2, Columbia wanted the movie reshot as a romance between the pair. Rudolph, naturally, balked at the idea and has since branded Hollywood movies "corporate propaganda". He can't even name the heads of the studios anymore.

"The modest goal with Afterglow is that the audience feel something about the characters, but also something about themselves," claims Rudolph, in the hope that it may dent the cycle of predictability perpetually spun by the Hollywood dream-merchants.

"We get so little of that in our lives nowadays. There's a crooked onslaught to replace your sense of identity with their version of it - they want their logos in your dreams. In America, at least, emotions are casualties now. I don't think there's anything in life that's conclusive - including death. What remains is the beginning. Part of me is militantly ambiguous, I guess."

Garnering mixed reviews and business in the States, Afterglow has swung the spotlight back on to the publicity-, and work-shy, actress, Julie Christie. Nominated for an Oscar that she unfairly lost to Helen Hunt, she at least scooped the accolade of Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics circle. "Julie's the most reluctant actress you'll ever meet - and also the best," notes Rudolph. "If I was an actor today I'd go to that sheep guy and say: `Would you clone Julie Christie's DNA for me?'"

His limited budgets ensure he is restricted from many actors - "I never have anything to offer except the movie". As a result, his consistently unusual casting typifies and enlivens his work. From young(ish) off-kilter types, such as Matthew Modine and Jennifer Jason Leigh, to established character actors including Wallace Shawn and M Emmet Walsh, Rudolph's sustained success comes from allowing his actors free-range to explore the moral complexities of his fabricated universes. Working with them on what he calls "a strange molecular level", he sees casting as "the key to making film".

"If you told me right now that you can start tomorrow and you've got your choice - the pick of scripts or pick of actors - I'd always take the actors. I'd rather make up a movie with good actors than take a good script with actors that weren't right. I think they're the only real artists in the process."

Rudolph's choice of Jonny Lee Miller, recommended by Keith Carradine, is a case in point. Having missed Trainspotting (a film, he thinks, would have put him off casting Miller), Rudolph looked for bravado.

"When we were casting the role, you could smell without having to go fishing that the American actors wouldn't bite. You can tell because there's so much built in to the way these talented young actors are managed. They don't want to play good roles that come at a pivotal time in their career where they might not be likeable or confused or ambiguous. Jonny, though, bit at it."

At one point, Rudolph was set to bring Gary Larson's cartoon-strip, The Far Side, to the screen, but his next project is one he has being trying to launch for more than 20 years. Based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions, Rudolph originally wrote the script Rudolph had written for Altman years ago. "It's the most challenging thing I'll ever do. It's also about more things than I've ever dealt with before," he says with excitement.

With Peter Falk, Lily Tomlin and Alice Cooper, among others, talked about for a cast, the Great Uncle looks set to carry on regardless.

`Afterglow' opens on 29 May