Altman '08: For Real

In his 80s, 'Prairie Home' director Robert Altman remains a player

"Do you mind if I lie down?" Robert Altman asks as I walk into the Manhattan offices of his Sandcastle 5 production company.

It'll be just like the psychiatrist's office, I suggest.

"That's what you want anyway, isn't it?" he gruffly counters, sprawling himself out on a leather sofa barely long enough to contain his imposing six-foot frame.

Well, yes and no. Maybe it's his impeccable Midwestern decorum, or the fact that he worked his way up through the Hollywood ranks at a time (the late 1950s) when directors were craftsmen, not auteurs, but the iconoclastic director of M*A*S*H, Nashville, and The Player is loathe to talk about himself or his work in terms that smack of the lofty or intellectual. He claims, without a touch of irony, that some of his episodes of the old Combat! television series are as good as any movie he ever made, and he's quick to apportion credit to others for making him look so good, especially when the talk turns to actors.

Of Meryl Streep, who stars in his latest film as one-half of a family country-music duo (the other half of which is played by veteran Altman collaborator Lily Tomlin), he gushes: "I didn't have to do anything with her—I went home after the first day of shooting and I was a little depressed. She couldn't be nicer and more helpful to everybody. There's no angst of any kind. But she's just about 25 percent smarter than everybody else, and that's why she's had this career that she's had. I just put her and Lily together, gave them a room with a piano and a guy in it, and they worked everything out."

The movie, of course, is A Prairie Home Companion, based on Garrison Keillor's long-running radio variety program and filmed almost entirely within the confines of St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater. If this Midwestern film seems a surprising choice for the director, it's worth remembering that Altman himself is a son of Kansas City. He has spent the bulk of his six-decade career charting our changing cultural landscape through the lens of his roving, zooming camera and the disharmonies of his overlapping soundtracks, creating a body of work as varied and richly colored as the country itself—a bloody good Vietnam satire, a couple of frontier Westerns, a scabrous Hollywood takedown, and even the odd (in every sense of the term) biopic. Yet somehow it's all of a piece—like chapters, Altman has suggested, in an ongoing serial.

About what?

"Oh, the things that I have seen, the things that have occurred to me," he says in his gravelly Kansas City drawl. "I negate what I said in one place and I embellish it someplace else. I'm the wrong guy to ask these questions."

In the latest installment of his magnum opus, which Altman says he was inspired to do out of simple admiration for Keillor's work, a numbers-crunching corporate overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to pave over the Fitzgerald's paradisiacal environs with—what else?—a parking lot. But before the wrecking ball strikes, the show must go on, one last time. And on it goes, and on and on (complete with a couple of encores), until A Prairie Home Companion becomes perhaps the most ebullient funeral service ever put on film—a joyous tribute to the end of something past its time, but hardly past its prime.

Robert Altman is 81 this year. Excepting a couple of dozen shorts, documentaries, and movies for television, A Prairie Home Companion marks the 36th feature film he has directed since making his debut, with The Delinquents, in 1957. In those 50 years, he has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, won the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, and been hailed as one of the founding fathers of American independent cinema. But if he now seems a maverick and an institution, it was a long time coming.

"I kept chugging along," he says, "and I never got in bed with any one section of the industry that might have made it more difficult for me to change. During the '80s, when it got so bad, I started filming a lot of stage plays. I'd literally take the script, the Samuel French script, and that was the screenplay. We'd just put up a fourth wall. Streamers was done that way, and so was Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean."

Altman, then, is a survivor, and, with the exception of John Huston, maybe the only American director who has worked to such an advanced age while continuing to make some of his best films, of which A Prairie Home Companion is certainly one. But no matter the literal and figurative specters of death that pass through the Fitzgerald's hallowed corridors, Altman isn't planning his exit just yet.

"I'm here in a way under false pretenses," he said while accepting his long overdue honorary Oscar earlier this year, just before stunning the crowd with the revelation that 10 years ago he underwent a complete heart transplant. And over the course of our conversation, he mentions two upcoming projects he plans to film in the near future, one of which—a feature adaptation of the documentary Hands on a Hardbody—already exists as a series of note cards and photographs taped to a marker board adjacent to where we are sitting. In other words, Robert Altman has many stories left to tell.

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