He's satarised every American sacred cow. He made M*A*S*H, Mcabe, Nashville and the Player. But is he ready for Naomi, Claudia, Gianfranco and Jean-Paul? As Pret-a-Porter, his new film is launched, Robert Altman tells Douglas Kennedy why the fashio wo
It looked like the sort of hotel which once played home to pinstriped hoods: little big shots with names like Joey, Duke, or Cookie "the Cucumber" Pinzer. And though it was situated on one of the more expensive parcels of real estate in New York City (Park Avenue and 59th Street), the Hotel Delmonico exuded down-at-heel, Twenties glamour - a throwback to an era when hotels were built in the style of a Wurlitzer organ.

Inside, however, the Delmonico began to show its age. Its residential corridors were dimly lit; every cornice or moulding was buried under 83 coats of barracks-issue grey paint. It was so drab, you found yourself thinking: this is cheap private eye territory; the sort of joint where ageing showgirls come to die.

But when you rang the bell of Apartment 15G, you don't find yourself greeted by a decrepit Ziegfeld flapper in a housecoat. Instead, the door is answered by an urbane young woman dressed in black jeans that fit her like surgical gloves. Inside, the decor is ad-agency chic: stark white walls, black leather sofas, banks of hi-fi and video equipment and a massive glass desk, behind which was a huge piece of pop art: a floor-to-ceiling electronic sign from one of those Five & Dime general stores that were once a common fixture in every American small town.

It was a little startling to find such an ultra-swanky set-up behind such a shabby-genteel facade. Even more surprising was the level of noise in this office. Jazz blared on the stereo, three separate telephone lines buzzed at once, assorted secretaries and dogsbodies were engaged in half- a-dozen simultaneous dialogues, a workman was drilling away into a wall, while from the street beyond came the repetitive thunder of ambulance sirens and kango-hammers.

When the boss of this office walked through the door, he seemed perfectly at home amid such high decibels, and went about his business (being briefed by assistants, glancing at his post, even chatting with the drill-wielding workman) oblivious to all the noise. That he should enjoy working in such a cacophony, however, is not at all surprising - for one of the hallmarks of Robert Altman's films has been his use of multi-layered soundtracks, on which four different conversations may overlap at any one time.

The aural mayhem of his office also reminds you that, as a director, Altman has always delighted in pandemonium. In fact, he's often been compared to a circus master. His films often deal in such carnival-like American pastimes as war (M*A*S*H), country-and-western music (Nashville), politics (Tanner), and trying to live in the city of Los Angeles (Short Cuts).

And now, having just celebrated his 70th birthday, Altman's newest film, Prt--Porter, triumphantly delves into yet another circus - the international fashion business. To those used to his more acrimonious films, Prt-- Porter may seem like Diet Altman. An unapologetically light and frivolous satire on the Gucci-Pucci-smoochies who run the designer garment business, it features a glittery cast (Julia Roberts, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall, and Kim Basinger among a catwalk-full of fashion- biz nomenklaturi). But Altman insists that, when you look beneath the film's flighty veneer, you will see a barbed critique on the conflict between art and commerce.

"Have you ever been to one of the big Paris fashion shows?" he asks, settling down on one of the office sofas and ignoring the endlessly ringing phone to his right. "I went for the first time a couple of years ago when I was living there, and I immediately thought: this is the craziest goddamn theatre I've ever seen. Why isn't someone making a film about it? Especially since there's such an interesting tension in the fashion business between the artists - the designers - and the hype artists, who push the product.

"And, of course, fashion is exactly like the film business - a designer or a director can't work unless someone puts up the money. It all comes down to financing - which, believe me, is just about the worst aspect of the movie business. Especially since Hollywood doesn't really know what to do with itself any more, and has created this marketing system which forces a movie to either succeed in its opening weekend or die. It's a system that really stinks."

When it comes to the subject of Hollywood, Altman doesn't mince words - as befits someone who has always refused to play the studio game and has a reputation for cantankerousness. But cantankerousness is also a hallmark of his conversational style. He shoots straight from the hip when it comes to pronouncing on America's born-again conservatism.

"The only good thing I can say about our recent election is that, at least Michael Huffington didn't win in California. You know what was the most disturbing thing about Huffington? The fact that he had no eyes. You looked into them and all you could see was his wife's hat. Of course, the conservatism that swept the country is going to get far worse. And I'm sure that the threat of Aids has made people more conservative, more cautious about everything. It's also made masturbation far more popular than it's ever been in the past. I mean, what can you say about a time when people are afraid to go out and fuck someone? No wonder `home entertainment' is so big these days - it's a sex substitute."

Remember that distant uncle of yours (every family has one) who was always known as something of a hard-living, much married hedonist; whom your parents spoke about in faintly embarrassed, tones; and who would promise to get you drunk and/or take you to a whorehouse on your 18th birthday? Robert Altman fits this profile perfectly. Thrice-married and ceaselessly in debt for much of his life, he also admits to a love of gambling, a fondness for the bottle, and a long-standing relationship with controlled herbal substances.

But unlike many American celebrities who spout on self-importantly about their Prozac/ Jack Daniels/Haagen-Daz dependencies - Altman is matter- of-fact about his profligate disposition.

"I still like to gamble - hell, my whole life's been one big gamble. And I'd still drink if I could - but a little while back, my doctor told me that, given the shape of my heart, it was either a choice me of me quitting the booze or being dead in a year or two. I have this theory about booze - I think you're given a certain quota when it comes to how much you can handle, and I certainly used mine up years ago. And having drank steadily for more than 50 years, I now miss it. In fact, I miss it terribly."

The absence of drink means that Altman no longer looks like a paunchy behemoth. Instead, he's a surprisingly gaunt septuagenarian who now dresses (thanks, no doubt, to the Prt--Porter influence) like a stylish denizen of Milan: designer jacket, elegant merino wool polo shirt, serious shoes. But what impresses you most is his animatedness - unlike many seventysomething men facing up to the Big Sleep, he refuses to succumb to weltschmerz. On the contrary, he still delights in his role as a mischievous provocateur, and admits that impending old age has simply made him even more restless when it comes to getting on with new projects.

"One of the few good things about knowing you have only a limited amount of time left is that it makes you concentrate fully on the work you're doing. And my reputation is now secure enough to guarantee that anyone investing in my films won't lose a lot of money. They won't make much either - but, hell, losing a little won't hurt them..."

Spoken like a seasoned gambler; and one who first learned about the art of going for broke during his childhood in Kansas City - the town where he was born in 1925, and which then had the dubious reputation of being one of the most politically corrupt cities in the United States.

"Growing up in Kansas City was a bit like being raised in the middle of Italy - which made for an interesting childhood. Especially as my Dad was a wheeler-dealer insurance salesman who devoted a lot of his energies to gambling and women - the sort of interests that made him a fine upstanding citizen in Kansas City back then."

Though his father had the instincts of a wastrel, Altman and his two sisters were raised in a reasonably affluent Catholic household. But from an early age at school, Altman was regarded by his teachers as a first- class mischief-maker - so on reaching adolescence, he found himself packed off to a strict military academy, and ended up catching the end of World War II as a fighter pilot in the Pacific.

After being demobilised, he tried to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood but, when work was unforthcoming, he went home and landed a job making industrial films for a company in Kansas City. After more than 60 films on, say, motorway safety tips, he decided to give Hollywood a second shot, and spent much of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years directing episodes of potboiling television series - Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Finally, in the mid-Sixties, he graduated to feature films, but after a handful of commercial failures (now-forgotten pictures like Nightmare in Chicago and That Cold Day in the Park), he was considered some way down the league of hot properties. Which meant that he was the 16th director approached by Twentieth Century Fox when it was trying to get a little army-medical comedy called M*A*S*H into production.

That was 1970, when America was engaged in an unfortunate armed adventure called Vietnam. And M*A*S*H's irreverent contempt for things military - not to mention its freewheeling anarchic humour - chimed perfectly with the seditious tenor of the times. So much so that it became the surprise box office hit of the year. And Robert Altman's telephone suddenly started ringing.

"Had M*A*S*H happened to me when I was 31, I'd be dead today," Altman says. `'The arrogance factor would have set in and wiped me right out. But I was 45 at the time, and was happy enough up to then with my lack of success. I was doing a lot of work, having a lot of fun. So the best thing about M*A*S*H was the work it allowed me to do afterwards. But as for `becoming a success' - even then I knew it meant nothing. Nothing at all."

When a director suddenly finds himself on the Hollywood A-List, he is usually offered big-deal projects with big-deal stars. But Altman decided to follow up M*A*S*H with a decidedly uncommercial, idiosyncratic comedy called Brewster McCloud, in which a modern-day Icarus attempts to fly inside the Houston Astrodome. It crashed at the box office, as did his next film, McCabe and Mrs Miller, a beautifully elegiac Western about a whorehouse entrepreneur. Alongside M*A*S*H and Nashville (his coruscating view of the country-and-western music industry), McCabe is now considered one of the key films of the Seventies. And as he himself readily admits, he was fortunate to hit a time in Hollywood history when the studios were taking risks on new, iconoclastic filmmakers like himself.

"The late Sixties and early Seventies really were an unusual time in the movie business, as guys like Peckinpah and Scorsese and Coppola and me were getting films backed by the major studios, all of whom probably realised there was a buck to be made out of the widespread rebellion against Nixon and the war. Now, of course, none of studios would ever bankroll the sort of stuff we made back then. But, of course, the studios are now run by actuaries."

If Altman's Seventies output earned him a reputation as a brilliantly idiosyncratic critic of American mores and values, then within the industry he was also known as someone who had a freewheeling attitude towards scripts. Even now, he doesn't mind confessing, "I never read the original script of Prt--Porter" [which he commissioned from the San Francisco Chronicle's film critic, Barbara Shulgasser]. Nor, he says, did he bother to finish reading Raymond Chandler's novel The Long Goodbye before filming it.

Given this cavalier attitude towards writers and their scripts - his auteurish belief that the director is the ultimate author of his movies - it's not surprising that Ring Lardner Jr cursed him for ruining his script of M*A*S*H, even though (irony of ironies) he went on to win an Oscar for its screenplay later that year. And Altman has even clashed with Harold Pinter over his lack of attention to detail.

"I was filming his play The Room for television in 1987," he recalls, "and found this fantastic old Victorian house in Montreal which was just perfect as a set. The problem was, the number on the door was 73, instead of seven as specified in Pinter's script - and, quite frankly, it didn't occur to me to change the number. Pinter was not pleased. In fact, his angry reaction really amazed me, and it actually hurt my feelings to discover that he had put me in the category of someone who tampers with his work." He pauses and smiles an evil smile. "But he did cash the cheque."

Altman's production of two Pinter plays wasn't his only foray into television. In fact, most of his work in the Eighties was for the small screen - for, after a few high-priced film flops (notably Popeye), he found himself virtually shut out of Hollywood, and therefore moved east. First he landed in New York (which he still calls home today) and then Paris, where he lived for a period in the Eighties, making innovative television films such as Vincent and Theo (a life of Van Gogh and his brother, starring Tim Roth) and Tanner - his brilliant satire of American presidential campaigns, co-written by the creator of Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau, and shot on the real-life hustings during the 1988 race for the White House.

"A lot of people have asked me if I felt like a failure during the Eighties. Not at all. Look , for the past 35 years, there's never been a time when I haven't had a project on the go. When I couldn't find the financing for bigger things, I directed television and stage plays [such as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the source of the neon sign behind Altman's desk]. I must say I'm fed up hearing that Popeye was the film that killed me in Hollywood. It's just not true. It didn't lose money, it wasn't a disaster - even though the studio that backed it [Paramount] decided, for reasons best known to themselves, to tell everyone it was a disaster. Mind you, that was when Barry Diller was running the studio. Now, of course, he's head of QVC [the home shopping network], which is exactly the right place for a man of his talents, as home shopping gives him the chance to work with the sort of writers and directors he really appreciates."

Whew. If Robert Altman decides you aren't his idea of a good time, he can be a notably acerbic enemy (especially if you are a Hollywood studio swell). But he is also known for his intense loyalty to his directorial protgs (like Alan Rudolph and Tim Robbins) and the actors whom he has worked with over the years. And given his strong sense of constancy towards his colleagues, it's not surprising that he reserves his harshest wards for those he feels have been disloyal to him - like Barbara Shulgasser, whom he now despises for publishing an article about the making of the film in Vanity Fair.

"She did a terrible thing, writing that piece. I mean, she had access on the set to all those actors, who were free in front of her because, after all, she was the writer of the movie. But then she goes and publishes a story full of surface things and half-truths. She's a trash writer and I'll never fucking speak to her again."

As he enters his eighth decade, Robert Altman is not getting noticeably mellower. His bullshit detector is as acute as ever. While he can be immensely generous towards other independent-minded film directors ("Ken Loach and Mike Leigh continue to do fantastic work - but how they get the financing I don't know"), he can be equally cutting: "Stephen Frears's work only got suspect when he started working with Dustin Hoffman." And when you argue that, like the rest of us mere mortals, the talented Mr Frears might have been tempted by a big fat Hollywood fee, Altman insists, "Believe me, it's never worth a year of your life. Never."

You sense that Altman uses his contrariness (his anger, for example, "at the way in which American society is now all about keeping the wogs out") as a way of not succumbing to the inevitability of old age. And at a time when caution and correctness are the keywords in the United States - and when all Hollywood movies seem to be about "personal growth" - his bad-tempered, caustic vision of American life is both bracing and salutary.

"How can I not deal with what's going on around me?" he says. "Especially as it really is the end of the American century - a time when everyone's starting to realise that the experiment just didn't work - everyone except the Republicans, that is. And now that they're really in control, it's about time that I go to Washington and make something there. And I'd better get there soon, as I don't have much in the way of time left to me any more.

"That's the problem with being 70 - you really do see the light at the end of the tunnel. And, let's face it, the chances of me being able to talk to you ten years from now are (1) Slim and (2) None."