A movie is like a painting, and once it’s finished, to try and improve it is a mistake, like getting your nose fixed.
You said you react emotionally to critics. In what way?
My first reaction is surprise, I guess, because whether they like or dislike my films, critics always deal with them emotionally, not intellectually. I can almost predict what attitudes certain critics will have about my films. For instance, Rex Reed — who’s really not a critic but a gossip — didn’t like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which was no surprise at all. But in his review he said something like, “And then this fake snowstorm came along, and it was just too much to take.” Well, he didn’t have to like the picture, but the one thing he couldn’t say was that the snowstorm was fake. He often makes errors like that. And I know I get angry with John Simon, who invariably has something terrible to say about some physical aspect of an actor. I happen to despise Barbra Streisand as a performer — in fact, everything I know about her makes me despise her — but it offended the hell out of me when Simon started writing about her nose. I don’t find Streisand’s nose the least bit unattractive, and I don’t think it has anything to do with her acting. I find that habit of Simon’s to be really disgusting.
After downgrading recent films of yours, such as Quintet and A Perfect Couple, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael — once one of your staunchest admirers — wrote that “Altman wears his failures like medals” Did that upset you?
Well, I can understand where it comes from, but just because she and other critics generally dismiss a film doesn’t mean that I’m going to follow the pack. I don’t agree with them. I am still very proud of those films, extremely so. And if there’s something I’m not proud of, I don’t show it.
Has that ever happened?
Yes. There are some television shows I directed early in my career that I really wouldn’t want anyone to see. That kind of thing could happen again in the future, but it hasn’t happened recently. That doesn’t mean I think critics are crazy and that the audience is wrong and that everyone should understand each of my films. All I’m saying is that there’s an audience out there that will understand them and that I’ve been happy with the films I’ve made. When critics don’t like a film, it hurts my feelings, but I think it’s fair to say that the more adulation you get in certain quarters, the more criticism you’ll get and the more people will expect of you. It’s like people saying, “Oh yeah? Well, show us again.”
I think it’s great that critics write about movies, because otherwise you’d just put an ad in newspapers saying this is what we’re showing on Saturday night; so in a way, criticism dignifies what you do. But the problem even critics are facing now is that there isn’t a broad spectrum of movies to draw from anymore, and all the films you can see are pretty much the same. I really don’t think there’s any point in reading criticism of The Empire Strikes Back or Animal House.
You’re hardly alone in thinking that an increasing number of U.S. films have all the import of toothpaste commercials. What do you think is responsible for the recent surge of mindless American movies?
Let me state the problem in reverse: everyone’s somehow trying to make a fine art out of something that’s marketed as the very lowest form of exploitation, which is how movies are sold. The movie business is now a cheap carnival sideshow, and the only people who are concerned with the content of films are the people who actually make them. The people who sell films don’t think like that. Because the cost of manufacturing a movie is so high, studios care only about films that aim for the lowest common denominator in an audience. The studios want people to come in and sit there and not be intimidated by a film. They want moviegoers to totally understand a film and be able to laugh at it, so they keep dropping their films’ contents down to teenage levels and below, because that’s the age level where people want to like what their peers like.
It’s like when I was a kid. I thought baseball sucked, but the Yankees were the best, and if you weren’t a Yankee fan you were out of it. So it was the easiest thing for me, as a 12-year old, to go out and say,
“Oh, I love the Yankees.” This is what audiences are doing, and it’s also what the studios are doing. If I had any real sense, I would just not make any more films. I mean, I really shouldn’t; I don’t want to anymore. I should quit. But the other side of the coin is: then what do you do for the rest of your life?
Perhaps you just wait for the current wave of horror films and Animal House imitations to subside. In any case, it’s clear that movies are hardly better than ever. Why not?
I think a lot of it has to do with television, which is the nation’s educating tool. In the last five years, the quality of television has dropped at about twice the rate that it should’ve gone up. And that, of course, has educated — or de-educated — the public to the point where films are following the same course. Today, if people see a movie and think, “Jeez, I don’t understand what he’s doing that for,” instead of trying to figure it out or accept it, they feel stupid — and they are stupid. They are stupid!
I hardly do it anymore, but starting in 1970 I’d go to colleges and show films of mine, and I’d talk to audiences of students, most of whom were interested in film. Each year they would challenge me and tell me I was full of shit; they’d say, “I didn’t like this,” and “Why did you do that?” Now when I go to a college and stand up before 5,000 people, I can’t even get anybody mad at me. The kind of questions I get these days is “Who’s the most ‘fun’ movie star you’ve worked with?”