Robert Altman's double-feature smile

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tell Robert Altman that you've just watched his 16-year-old campaign-trail mini-series Tanner '88, which airs on the Sundance Channel for the next 11 Tuesdays, and he interrupts in mock-disbelief, "But that must be six hours!"

Tell him it's the best six hours of television that you've seen in months, and that it made you run off to see his new dance film, The Company, and he says, "That makes me feel real good." (The Company, a jolt of aesthetic adrenaline, does not yet have an opening date in Baltimore.)

Decades after he made his breakthrough with M*A*S*H (1970) and became a legend with Nashville (1975), the 79-year-old director is having the second or third prime of his movie life, the way John Huston did when he made Prizzi's Honor and The Dead. Altman's vitality courses through the phone line from his New York office, where he's putting together plans to direct Paint, a movie about the contemporary art scene, starring Salma Hayek and James Franco (of The Company). With Tanner '88 and The Company in the public eye, Altman says, "I'm happy as a clam."

At first glance, the two are opposites. Tanner '88 follows a fictional Democratic candidate, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), through the factual minefields of a primary season and straight up to the Atlanta convention. This cross-country political odyssey teems with sharply etched characters and startling incidents that in Altman's words "just grew like Topsy." The Company is an imagistic spree with the barest story line about a striving young dancer (Neve Campbell), her ups and downs as a member of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and her romance with a good-looking restaurant cook (Franco).

But the mini-series and the movie are related in their method and audacity. For each, Altman embarked on a headlong voyage of enlightenment through a world unknown to him -- and translated his experience into bolts of revelation for the audience.

"We never have the money to make these things, but we get them done," he says with satisfaction. And he does them right. Even the revival of Tanner '88 arrives on TV screens this week with fresh, inspired embellishments. The author of the original 11 episodes, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, wrote "fireside chats" for Altman to film with Murphy as the ex-candidate, now a professor at Michigan State University, as well as "interviews" with Tanner's daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon) and T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed), his former campaign manager.

"Just showing these people 16 years later is text," says Altman, referring to the way their aging deepens our perspective on their characters. But the new material is also funny, sharp and eloquent about political campaigns and human nature. Altman chuckles when he thinks of T.J.'s insight that the ideal campaign bedmate would turn into a pizza at 4 a.m. Later, Trudeau gives Murphy a summary speech that ranks with any in great political fiction. "There are no moral victories in politics," he says. "There's only winning. And if you have even the slightest doubt about that, you shouldn't be in it. You should move aside for those who care enough to do what it takes to win."

"You know," Altman says, warming to the subject, "what's amazing is how au courant the show is. The main difference I can see is the size of the cell phones. We've sold Tanner '88 every four years to England. But nobody was interested in running it again here -- everybody thought it was yesterday's news, old hat. Last year Sundance came to us about reviving it and they've been terrific about it."

Pioneering form

Tanner '88 started when HBO went to Trudeau hoping he'd give them a political TV show and Trudeau said he'd do it only if the cable network snagged Altman. The writer and the director came up with the notion of an unknown former Michigan congressman running for the Democratic nomination after a political hiatus. Before they were done, they pioneered a new form of political docu-satire, with a supporting cast including real politicos like Bob Dole, Gary Hart and Pat Robertson, real journalists and pundits like Linda Ellerbee, Chris Matthews and Hodding Carter, and even a real public speaking coach in Dorothy Sarnoff, author of Never Be Nervous Again.

"We shot it on video and our camera wasn't any bigger than anyone else's, so these guys were all disarmed a little bit. And we soon learned in New Hampshire that when you had candidates chugging around in the snow, every time they saw a camera they wanted to be in front of it."

Although the series overflows with comic chatter, filming was as loose and rough-and-ready as silent picture making. "We didn't know how much we'd be able to interact with these people -- that's what was so exciting about it. When we'd hear that Pat Robertson was over in X place and would be leaving there in 20 minutes, we'd get in our truck and go over there with our actors and our equipment. We'd say, 'We're running a fictional candidate named Jack Tanner, and he's going to say hello to you as you pass; when he does, could you treat him like a candidate?' And Robertson said, 'For all I know they all are candidates.' The only guy that turned us down -- or whose people turned us down -- was Al Gore. When we were going to Nashville, Gore's people said, 'Your ratings aren't going to be high enough to be worth our while.' Later, I talked to Gore about that and he said, 'Oh, God, I would have done that in a minute! I wanted to do that; it was a great show.' "

Tanner starts out as a likable, hollow figure mouthing liberal bromides about a better tomorrow for America, then fitfully matures as a politician. The turning point comes when Tanner sits with inner-city Detroit mothers whose children died in the streets. He's been mouthing a chic platform that includes the legalization of drugs; now he comes face to face with a constituency horrified by the free flow of pharmaceuticals. The confrontation is galvanizing, for him and for the audience.

"We went to see those women who all had children murdered," Altman recalls, "and then we decided to do a session there." The production sent out the word that they wanted rappers and verse-slingers to perform at "a jamboree" for S.O.S.A.D. - "Save Our Sons and Daughters." A man named Earl Henderson recited a poem called "So Sad" with the hair-raising, heartbreaking refrain, "I never held ill feelings to anyone / Till I found my child was dead / Till I found my child was dead / Till I found my child was dead."

Directing Trudeau's new lead-ins made Altman himself see "the arc of the piece much more strongly. At first, Tanner's kind of a sappy candidate. ... But that afternoon in Detroit changes the campaign. As Tanner says in one of the new introductions, 'It meant that social justice above all else would be our central message, would inform everything we did. It also meant, of course, that we'd lose.'"

Part of the metamorphosis was due to Murphy's performance. "We needed someone who could be a candidate without really saying a lot -- like these guys are today, with these high school subjects they touch on, 'freedom' and blah blah blah." When Altman realized that Murphy's then-girlfriend, now-wife, Wendy Crewson, was available, "We decided to put her in the picture" as his lover, a Dukakis campaign officer and thus a catalyst for media scandal. "She made it affordable to do her character ... we didn't have to pay for an extra room for her."

But the candidate's discovery of substance mostly came from what Team Tanner stumbled on along the road. Altman "would go to each city and locate 'found art' to use" -- like a robot that could be programmed to taunt Tanner -- "and Garry would write scenes around it for our people."

Influence on satire

The method of Altman's madness sustained the series' gritty ambience and the air of bent reality that supports both its humor and analysis. "We were on the air literally two days after we finished the last shot of the segment. The day the convention started, we had Tanner going into it, right when they were first setting it up. Seventy percent of the people we used were non-actors, and since we couldn't turn them into actors, we had to take the actorishness out of the performers."

Pamela Reed's brilliance as the tart campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh, managing a runaway organization while fielding cries for help from fledgling Congressman Joe Kennedy, had a long-lasting influence on future political comedy-dramas. Could it be mere coincidence that Allison Janney's press secretary on The West Wing is named C.J.? Altman and Trudeau patterned T.J. on women who were then getting known as powers behind political men, like the Dukakis campaign's Susan Estrich. (Tanner '88 also paved the way for nonpolitical minglings of semi-improvised fiction and reality like The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

Of course, it's pure historical serendipity that Tanner's possessive daughter, Alex, in Cynthia Nixon's touching, funny performance, affects his election drive in the manner of Gore's eldest daughter, Karenna. But Altman is keeping his fingers crossed that any art-and-life parallels that viewers perceive will make the series connect with a broader audience than ever before. "I think the audience today knows a lot more about the process," he says; "at the time, no one knew what a delegate counter was." And Altman hopes his debunking of the campaign system will not turn people off to voting, but intensify their understanding of what's happening in the news.

"What the show does is allow you to parse the candidates. Anything that happens behind the scenes in Tanner '88 is happening right now with Dean and Kerry or one of the other candidates. I'm hoping that people will take their recent experience and apply that to the information that comes in from our show." That symbiosis, Altman says, should give the series "more bounce. Everybody's watching politics and having opinions; maybe we'll pick up on that swell."

Unique views of dance

Tanner '88 swings; The Company rocks. No one except Carroll Ballard in his Nutcracker: The Motion Picture has shot ballet as unconventionally, effectively and adoringly as Altman does here. Never has a movie so vividly communicated dance as a group sport and discipline.

"Not unlike Tanner '88," says Altman, "I had a company of 45-50, including dancemasters -- all non-actors and about five actors. And since I couldn't teach 45 dancers how to act, I had to have the actors meld with them and appear to be non-actors." Even Neve Campbell, who initiated the project and financed the script, spent two years with the Joffrey and submerged herself in the group. "I treated her as part of the company. And she never violated that, ever. She had no dressing room, I didn't consult with her, she didn't have veto power, and she couldn't have been better."

The exception to the no-acting rule was Malcolm McDowell, who is gloriously theatrical and baldly, almost lovingly manipulative as the artistic director. "And that's as it should be. He's the salesman, hustler, con man. I think the way Malcolm played him gives the movie some pizazz but is also truthful -- it's exactly what [Joffrey artistic director] Gerald Arpino is like. His main job is raising money, getting women and their rich husbands to support the company. There's no other way of supporting the company than by that sort of donation." But why McDowell for this role? "The minute it came up, Malcolm first came to my mind." Could the connection have been his famous set piece in A Clockwork Orange, committing a horrendous dancing assault to the tune of Singin' in the Rain? "I may have thought of that," Altman confesses, wryly.

Campbell and Altman picked the Joffrey "because we didn't want the film to be Swan Lake all the time. The Joffrey has an eclectic repertoire and says it's 'the all-star, no-star company,' which is not quite true, but it is eclectic." Altman's selections include Alwin Nikolais' Tensile Involvement, in which the dancers, working with colored ribbons, conjure the effect of a mobile Christo installation, and Lar Lubovitch's My Funny Valentine, a slithery pas de deux set to the Rodgers and Hart song (it's Campbell's big number). The silliest and grandest piece is Robert Desrosiers' The Blue Snake, a mystical zoo of a dance featuring zebras, monkeys and a blue woman leaping around with a balloon attached to her head.

Altman admits The Blue Snake is "the least dance-worthy -- it's a children's ballet, really. But I couldn't pass up the metaphor of dancers eaten by a giant. Because that is what happens to dancers: they're eaten by the thing they're in. At 32, they're finished, like some athletes. And they're like a sports team. They have to work out every day an hour and a half before they start -- that's what they call 'class,' that 90-minute series of exercises. And then they can start stretching and jumping up in the air, otherwise they'd be popping tendons and pulling muscles. There's something melancholy about it, but I love their courage and dedication and discipline."

In shooting the dances, Altman shattered the two-dimensionality of the stage and emphasized ballet's humanity. "We moved around and over and under and behind and beyond, but we also stayed on the shots long enough so you know there are people doing these dances. I don't say this to deprecate Chicago, but in that film you saw 30 dancers a lot, and you can't remember them because they were perfect. I don't think there's ever been a perfect performance in every aspect of a dance. I'm not trying to say 'this is the best dance, these are the best dancers.' I'm trying to show you a day in the life of.

"These two things -- Tanner '88 and The Company -- are two of the favorite things I've done. Everything else has in one way or another been tied into things that have been done before. Tanner '88 was new territory. The Company is too."

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