Director Altman: American Flag 'a Joke'

LONDON — Robert Altman has a hacking cough. Although he recently spent a whole year in drizzly Britain shooting his latest screen drama, Gosford Park, the Kansas City-born directing legend has yet to reckon with the local climate. When we meet on a drab winter's morning in London, this 76-year-old has a severe case of sniffles.

For 15 anxious minutes, our meeting with the Colonel Sanders of American auteur cinema hangs in the balance. But loaded with zinc anti-flu drops courtesy of your Times correspondent, Altman perks up, waves away the remnants of his hotel breakfast and prepares to do the one thing he does better than directing films — holding court.

He speaks like he makes his films — in vast, amorphous, open-ended passages, most of them loosely concerned with Gosford Park, his first British-made feature in 50 years as a Hollywood-bashing maverick.

From a film-maker best known for sprawling, semi-improvised drama, Gosford Park is oddly conventional in form. Set in 1932, this $13 million production boldly takes on that most English of dramatic traditions — the country-house murder mystery. And yet the conventions of the genre are mostly mere hooks for some patented Altman techniques: the huge ensemble cast, the overlapping dialogue, the multi-streamed subplots and eavesdropped conversations.

In a forthcoming BBC Omnibus on Altman, Richard E. Grant, who appears in Gosford Park alongside a stellar cast that includes Maggie Smith, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren, compares Altman's methods to "working with the best kind of jazz musician."

Audaciously, Altman instructed these renowned stage veterans to act in a "non-theatrical" manner. The resulting film, which is regarded as a major Oscar contender this year, feels like a deliberately diffuse antidote to all those perfectly poised Merchant-Ivory chamber pieces. The film continues the way Altman's MASH (1970) redefined the war movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) rewrote the western rulebook and The Long Goodbye (1973) deconstructed the hard-boiled detective yarn.

"I wasn't taking the period movie apart so much as trying to put it under a proper look," Altman explains. "Most of these films become kind of precious, the camera is set up, everything is very orderly, the lighting is excellent, and everybody speaks very precisely at the same tempo. I didn't want to do that. The first thing we decided to do was shoot with the cameras just moving arbitrarily and picking up what happens."

Although Altman and his co-writers, Bob Balaban and Julian Fellowes, took Agatha Christie as their initial inspiration, the Cluedo-type suspense narrative of Gosford Park becomes almost incidental to the novelistic wealth of acutely observed snobbery and social ritual. "It's not a whodunnit," Altman says. "It's a why-dunnit. And even so, why not do it? That wasn't what the film was about. It was more about the corners, the detail, the behavior — the loose ends, you know?"

The party line on Altman is that he had a magnificent 1970s, a terrible 1980s and a triumphant creative revival in the 1990s. The reality is more complex, since every chapter of his career spawned underrated gems and messy mistakes. But Gosford Park feels like a satisfying, lavishly upholstered career landmark. Like The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993), it looks set to revitalize Altman's wildly wavering reputation yet again after a string of misfires.

Advance reactions to the film have been hugely positive on both sides of the Atlantic. The only recurring criticism after advanced screenings for British reviewers has been of Stephen Fry's jarring performance as a bumbling police inspector, pitching the film from naturalistic drama tocartoonish farce. However, Altman vehemently defends Fry's comic turn, claiming that the sudden shift in tone was deliberate.

"The Stephen Fry thing doesn't happen anywhere else but here," he argues. "He is known too well on television as being that character. People didn't want me to cast him for that reason, but that character was what I wanted. Actually, I modeled him after Jacques Tati. I gave him a pipe, the coat, the hands behind his back. Had I done that realistically, there would have been probably six policemen around that place. I didn't have time to do that, and it didn't serve what I was doing. Unfortunately, Stephen's the one who gets bruised when he reads all that stuff, and he shouldn't because he's just terrific. He's probably smarter than anybody who criticizes him by a long shot."

Altman's personal stake in Gosford Park seems to be an outsider's fascination with the baroque intricacies of Britain's pre-war class system. He anatomizes the absurdities of upstairs-downstairs culture with more affectionate bemusement than most British directors would dare.

"Well, I don’t have any affection for it," the director says frowning. "We talked to people in their nineties who had been maids, butlers, cooks and all that. It was their profession, their fathers and mothers did it, and they were very proud. But I was shocked to find out that servants in some households were not even called by their own names."

Although Gosford Park takes a largely dispassionate stance on class, Altman has long been considered a left-of-center voice since coming to prominence during the halcyon days of the American New Wave with such counter-culture classics as MASH. However, aside from tapping into generalized social themes, his films have rarely made concrete political statements.

"I am a political person," Altman says, "but I don't have to put a strong debate into a film. This present government in America I just find disgusting, the idea that George Bush could run a baseball team successfully — he can't even speak! I just find him an embarrassment. I was over here when the election was on and I couldn't believe it — and I'm 76 years old. Then when the Supreme Court came in and turned out to be a totally political animal, the last shred of any naivety that was left in me has gone. When I see an American flag flying, it's a joke."

An enraged Altman suddenly checks himself, aware that he is on sensitive ground in our post-September 11 world. But, controversially, he thinks that Hollywood may have inspired the World Trade Center attacks. "We gave them the ideas — it was a movie," he fumes. "We should be ashamed of ourselves."

Altman also disagrees with bombing Afghanistan, even though he flew B-24 bombers in the South Pacific during the Second World War. "I don't think there was a moral choice then," he argues. "But this thing we're involved in now — these people don't even have a country, and maybe that's the problem."

Hacking cough aside, Altman is clearly intent on working behind the camera until the big director upstairs yells "Cut!" He already has a feature about espionage legend Mata Hari scheduled for early next year and hopes to get another film rolling this spring. Would he shoot in Britain again? "Oh, I’m looking into that right this second," Altman says with a grin. "It was the best experience of my life, with actors and with crews — the whole process. If you asked would I live in London the rest of my life, yeah, I'd be very happy to stay here. There's nothing in America that I would miss at all."

By Stephen Dalton The Times,2933,43636,00.html

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