By DONALD PORTER
Robert Altman is on the phone from his office in Los Angeles, laughing ruefully that many journalists are labeling "Vincent and Theo," his new film, a "'comeback."
"I wish I could make a comeback," he says. "At first, I resented that by saying, 'Jeez, I haven't been anywhere.' But now I have no work. I'd like to make a comeback, whatever that means."
The currently unemployed film director will be attending the Sundance Film Festival, running today through Jan. 27 in Park City, in conjunction with a six-film retrospective of his work, and to host the regional premiere of "Vincent and Theo" at 7 p.m. Thursday in Park City's Egyptian Theater. The new film is his look at the relationship between painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, who supported the artist's nine-year career.
When Altman was first approached about the project, he says the script called for a four-hour miniseries, and was "a little solemn or sacred. I finally said, 'Yes, I'll do this. but (only) if I can make a film, if I have total control over the artistic content of this thing -- and execution.' They gave me everything I asked for, so I did it. And I must say, I'm really happy I did."
The result is a film that demystifies van Gogh, drawing the character out of the legend that has grown around him and making him real. This is something the director has been doing for decades now, putting a new spin on material in such a way that it in no way resembles anything you've seen before.
Altman is the man responsible for some of the most startlingly original films of the 1970s: "MASH," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Long Goodbye" and "Nashville" among them. But after that streak, he belly-flopped with "Quintet" and "Popeye," and his relationship with Hollywood was terminated.
"I worked in all the genres in the '70s," Altman recalls. "I'd say, 'Oh, this is a nice detective picture. This is a nice western. This is a nice so and so.' And (the studio) would say, 'Well, that works.'
"And then I'd put a turn on it and if it worked, fine. If it didn't work, then they'd say, 'That guy's bad news. He's not doing what he said he would, or what we expected him to do."
Throughout most of the '80s, Altman worked from a European base, moving into television and adapting numerous plays for the big and small screens, including "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Streamers," "Beyond Therapy" and "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial." His work was as innovative as ever, but his audience was limited.
Then in 1988, the director teamed with "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau to create "Tanner '88," a fictional, satirical look at presidential campaign politics shot in cinema verite style, in which the filmmakers' own candidate, Jack Tanner, hustled votes alongside real presidential hopefuls. The series played on HBO to critical raves, and Altman claims it's "probably the best work I've done."
"Garry Trudeau and I are talking about the possibility of running Jack in '92," Altman says, obviously pleased at the prospect. "We have to get a war chest. It takes money to do it, and Jack is a funny guy - he wouldn't take Keating's money before, so we'll have to find a pure source somewhere."
In the meantime, Altman is trying to get another project, "L.A. Shortcuts," [subsequently filmed and released as "Short Cuts"] off the ground. An ensemble piece he compares to "Nashville," it's based on several short stories by the late Raymond Carver. A deal was set at Paramount, he says, until a management change at the studio killed it last summer. Then Sydney Pollack tried to sell it to Universal, but they, like everyone else so far, passed on it.
Altman admits the experience is frustrating him. And frankly, he says, it's worrisome that he's not getting offers to direct films given the critical and commercial success of "Vincent and Theo."
"I don't understand it," he says. "It's like I don't exist." But, he emphasizes, the people who finance movies "don't have any obligation" to provide him or anyone else with work. The problem, according to Altman, is studios don't want pictures that might be difficult to sell to the public.
"I think what these companies are doing is trying to serve what they consider an existing market, rather than to create a market. ... That's why you see so many numbers (in the titles) of these pictures."
Altman, in fact, is no stranger to this mindset. He succumbed to the seduction, but managed to escape before his reputation was sullied. It all happened a few years ago, when he was approached about making "Nashville 2."
"What intrigued me about it was getting those same 24 or 22 people together and see them after 14 years," the director explains. So he wrote a script and obtained commitments from the surviving cast members. Then the studio "got worried that the ending wasn't upbeat enough -- I didn't put enough hope in it -- and I just said, 'I don't want to do this.' I worked on it for a whole year and then dropped
Still, Altman refuses to fix blame for his estrangement from the motion picture establishment: "This big battle that's gone on between me and Hollywood is a myth and an exaggeration. ... I think they sell shoes and I make gloves."
The current affection studios have for testing films in front of what Altman calls "lowest common denominator audiences" also concerns him. If an audience responds negatively to a film's ending, he says, it will be changed.
As a result, Altman says, the quality of the American cinema is in disrepair. "I think they're not getting worse, I think it's that they're not getting better. There's a cap on them."
Then, perhaps sensing that his thoughts and opinions have been too gloomy, he adds: "I don't mean to be serious and ultra-solemn about these kinds of things. ... I've been doing this for too long, maybe."
Say it ain't so. Robert Altman, one of the chief promoters and practitioners of alternative action -- and art -- in the movie business, despairing? Growing tired of the battle?
"No, I'm not the least bit tired. I'm still as frustrated as I ever was. I just get scared that I'm not gonna get another gig. Absolutely, I want another job. I'm anxious to go to work. I've got several projects, but they're all just a little too" difficult to market. "But I'll beat 'em at least once again."