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Life-line reading

"I’m the eternal optimist," says Robert Altman in Los Angeles about what’s kept him making films during a tumultuous 40-year career.

"I’m digging through all the horseshit because I know there’s got to be a pony around. I keep going back to it. Not very smart, I guess."

Of the handful of American directors in his generation who are regarded as true auteurs, Robert Altman has been the most prolific and stubbornly persistent. Hitting his creative stride in the early 1970s with films such as M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975), which redefined their genres for a more cynical America, Altman hit a critical and commercial brick wall with the unjustly maligned Popeye (1980).

When The Player was released in 1992, it was generally viewed as a comeback, which just makes Altman laugh, because since The Delinquents in 1957 he’s never stopped working. In addition to feature films and documentaries, he’s worked a great deal in television, from episodic directing to theater adaptations and a groundbreaking series ("Tanner," 1988 on HBO). He’s even staged operas, including Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he also taught classes on his films – the university awarded him an honorary doctorate of fine arts in 1996.

Despite Altman’s consistently interesting creative output, his problems stem from the fact that his films have performed inconsistently at the box office. While he’s pleased that he has a loyal following of fans, he adds wryly, "That’s a cult, and a cult is not enough people to make a minority. But there’s nobody that’s going to like them all except me. It just isn’t in the cards."

Altman also doesn’t wield the total control over his films that the late Stanley Kubrick enjoyed, as evidenced by the controversy over the final cut of his recent film, The Gingerbread Man – which he ultimately won. So how does this tenacious 74-year-old iconoclast keep working in an industry not known for appreciating its distinctive artists? His latest film, Cookie’s Fortune, provides an answer.

"I have to keep the price down and I have to get some of these actors," explains Altman, referring to Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O’Donnell, Charles S. Dutton and Patricia Neal (in her first film in a decade).

But a veteran such as Altman understands the peculiar mix of art and commerce that defines filmmaking, and doesn’t have a great deal of difficulty bringing together a name cast.

"They became actors in the first place to be creative and to create something," he explains. "These films give them the chance. So if I feed them well, pay them a little bit of money and be sure they have fun, I can get them for a short time."

He also creates an atmosphere of trust that actors, ranging in experience from Tyler to Neal, appreciate.

"I feel that when I’ve finished casting a film," Altman says, "that 80 to 85 percent of my creative input’s finished, and it’s really been turned over to them. I’m just in there watching them lead us all through the fog and hopefully it comes out to be something that I’ve not seen before, because that’s what I’m always after."

Cookie’s Fortune represents one type of film Robert Altman does exceedingly well: the large ensemble cast.

"These kinds of stories attract me," he explains. "All the people you see on the screen, why can’t they have their own personality and quirks and things? I believe in detailing – I think it’s very important. Lyle Lovett’s thing (in Cookie’s Fortune) is no different than a prop, but it gives you a little insight into a place; it gives you a little insight into the Liv Tyler character and what’s going on there, yet he’s not a main character."

Looking back at his body of work is rewarding for Robert Altman, but he prefers to start fresh each time he begins a new film.

"I think that any artist, the artist part of them is instinctive," he explains, "and I think that the film I make 10 years from now isn’t going to be any more artistic than the film I made 35 years ago. You get better with techniques and equipment; you get more efficient and you kind of know certain things. But also, you’re in danger of losing the innocence of art. So I try not to get too smart."

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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