‘Films in America are finished’

Veteran filmmaker ROBERT ALTMAN says the end of cinema is nigh. But don’t give up on it until you’ve seen his Dr TAnd The Women, featuring Richard Gere as a gynaecologist.

Tom Dawson

20 THE LIST 21 Jun—5 Jul 2001

obert Altman is one of American cinema's‘ great survivors. Many of his contemporaries from the l‘)7()s the likes of Peter Bogdanovich. llal Ashby. Bob Rafelson. William l5riedkin. Arthur Penn. and Michael Ritchie have fallen by the wayside. in some cases tragically. but Altman has somehow kept going. regardless of the obstacles. ‘I don‘t think any filmmaker who has ever lived has had a better shake than I have.‘ he reckons. ‘In 35 years I‘ve never not had

a project. I‘ve never not had a project that was not of

my own choosing. and I‘ve never had a project that was cut or mutilated. apart from my first. Countdown. l‘ve controlled my own destiny. I‘ve never become a mass audience filmmaker and I never will. There's nothing I would rather do than make films.‘

Those wondering why Altman has earned such an iconoclastic reputation are perhaps best directed to such bona fide 70s classics as McCuhe And Mrs Miller. M*xl*.8"i‘H. The Long (ioodhye and. above all. Nashville. Notable for their use of overlapping dialogue. improvised acting and shallow-fours

cinematography. these were ironic deconstructions of

traditional genres. in which freewheeling narratives pitted outsider protagonists against the values of an

‘I’ve never become a mass audience filmmaker and I never will. There’s nothing I would rather do than make films.’

increasineg heartless and synthetic American society. and where meaningful communication had been replaced by mindless chatter. Few of these films were commercial successes. however. forcing Altman to scale down his projects in the 80s. This was a decade where he concentrated on intimate chamber pieces such as Secret Honour and Come Back 72) The live And Dime. Jimmy Dean. Jimmy Dean. before making a triumphant ‘comeback‘ with his Hollywood satire. The Player.

Readers of Peter Biskind's [foxy Riders. Raging Bulls may have developed a picture of Altman as a prodigious womaniser. gambler and drinker. yet the white—haired 76-year-old now cuts a mellow. courteous

figure. Asked about the genesis of his new film. Dr 'I‘

And The Women. in which Richard Gere‘s Dallas gynaecologist finds events in his privileged existence

spinning out of control. Altman admits that when he first read Anne Rapp‘s original short story. it was the one he was ‘least interested in‘.

‘11 wasjust about a gynaecologist.‘ he says. ‘The last line of it was that he went to a psychiatrist and he told the shrink that he was pussy—whipped and that was the end of the story. Me and Anne were actually collaborating on another piece which wasn‘t working out. I told her. "I want to stop this. I'm not going to ever make this picture. let's go on to something else". We went back to the gynaecologist piece and I thought this could be quite interesting. It‘s an area men and women see totally differently. and l reckoned we might be able to find something in there.‘

The setting of the privileged Dallas society in Dr 'I‘ And The Women. where the immaculately dressed and coiffured women who attend the docs waiting room resemble some exotically plumed species. is according to Altman an integral aspect of the drama. ’es it‘s very much about certain excesses of the environment that it's set in. l wouldn‘t have made it in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or San Francisco. It wouldn‘t have had that satirical edge.’

‘As for the women in the film. they exist in every society.‘ he continues. 'but in Dallas there‘s an overkill. There are a lot of rich people who live there and there‘s that whole Texas scene where women don't work. They get dressed up and they look very smart. livery woman in the film was one of those women. except for the few actresses we bought in. They told me that. "This is what we do. we get dressed up. we try and see who can get their name in the paper more times than the others. and who can get invited to more parties". They‘re very aware of what they’re doing..

Throughout his career Altman has relished counter- casting actors. Think of the way he used the heartthroh Warren Beatty as the deglamourised and hapless entrepreneur in Mchhe And Mrs Miller. The filmmaker pulls a similar trick in Dr '1'. in deploying (lere as the handsome. caring doctor. who remains quite bemused by the various women in his life. ‘I knew he was the guy for this role.‘ says Altman. ‘I know Richard and I‘m a big fan of his and we've tried to work together on a couple of things that never happened. I had this image of a woman going in to a gynaecologist. taking her clothes off and putting her fe‘t in the stirrups. She‘s sitting there with her legs