a fountain in Seattle's luxury Four Seasons Hotel Garden Court that's an
emits an illusion of pretty wilderness within which to eat one's salad, crab
cakes or drink a martini but it's an expensive false front, a facade, not
dissimilar to the movie business and it's shift from storytelling, industry and
art to a present preoccupation with money, demographics and the mundane.
Garden Court isn't open for dining right now but there is plenty of
storytelling, industry talk and maybe art, going on. Alan Rudolph, the director,
has agreed to meet me there - and he's not thrilled with the state of things in
film today or it's deteriorating, corrupt cousin, film criticism - not
especially when it tinges upon his own movies.
the son of director Oscar Rudolph and prime protege of Robert Altman, maverick
of that overused phrase, independent cinema, is distraught and understandably
so; Hollywood keeps trying to sell us a carelessly manufactured,
factory-churned, teen-age premature ejaculation of product. Think Firestone
Tires on film.
Altman has found a critical voice for his ensemble pieces and enjoyed a
renaissance of late through such varied efforts as Short Cuts, Dr. T
and the Women, Cookie's Fortune and great buzz on the upcoming Gosford
Park, Rudolph, a director of darkly ambitious mood pieces like dusky-bluesy Remember
My Name, neon Choose Me, post-coital Afterglow, Parisienne The
Moderns and that The New-Yorker-iconography spun around Mrs.
Parker and the Vicious Circle, continues to struggle for his place in the
sun (never mind that for a long period of time Altman was anathema to critical
acclaim and audience as well).
makes European movies about cities and architecture, arbitration, ideology and
idealism as well as the complicated eternal struggle between men and women, and
when he's accessible - tiptoeing comedically over love - he's lightly applauded;
but when he delves under the surface for deeper meaning, he's pooh-poohed by the
journalists and movie-goers who haven't got time or a clue, much less
understanding for the mysterious, potent potion that makes a movie.
is really here because he's upset over the distribution of his latest film, Investigating
Sex. In fact he's trying to buy it back from the overseas company that holds
its rights in order to oversee its release and prevent it from going to
straight-to-video purgatory. After the knee-jerk reactions to his last two
movies, Trixie, and an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of
Champions, in which Bruce Willis was not embraced by audiences because he
was playing a complicated character outside of his usual action hero oeuvre,
Rudolph has a right to be nervous.
feels Viennese (it's set in pre-Depression America) in essence and sensibility;
it's Freudian and arty and is rife with two things Americans despise: sex and
communication. In fact Rudolph says he strived to make the movie
"high-minded but low-brow" for that very reason. He even acknowledged
to actor (and the film's executive producer) Nick Nolte, "This is a
dangerous movie for me because it confirms everyone's worst suspicions about
me." But like it or not, Investigating Sex is at least about
something as it comedically watches a professor and his rich underwriter
investigate sex with a select group of men and how the dynamic changes when two
young women stenographers are introduced to record the conversations. The end
result strives for thought without blowing a single building or body to bits and
eschews a current trend for mind-numbing revisionist history and cheap thrills.
It stars, besides Nolte, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Cumming, Neve Campbell, Robin
Tunney, Tuesday Weld and Til Schweiger - a dream cast by anyone's standards, but
truth is, no matter who's in his movie Rudolph is unmarketable to the young Turk
movie executives who don't get him and can't fathom how to sell one of his films
to a pre-adult mall multiplex patron.
tell him that there is a parallel between his career and a line in Investigating
Sex. In the film a character says, "The search for objective truth
requires certain sacrifices." Rudolph begins to laugh, saying, "I
wrote my own obituary yet again!"
he has a list full of less frivolous, real concerns. After all, many of our
"of a certain age" directors are reaching out to cable in order to be
able to make the films they want to make; Mike Nichols, Mark Rydell, Norman
Jewison and John Frankenheimer have all made films for the small screen recently
but it's an area that Rudolph says he "doesn't know much about."
a one trick pony and I've only made feature films, mostly on my terms, but it's
been a trade-off," he mulls. "I think I'm going to make a sign that
says 'good work at reasonable prices' because it's scary [right now].
Twenty-five years ago my first legit film, Welcome to L.A., was made and
at that time there was no cable, no cassettes or CDs, no art houses other than
foreign film houses, no indie cinema and no internet or internet cinema, no
digital, no anything. Robert Altman produced that film and he took it to New
York and United Artists said, 'We wouldn't have a clue how to sell this, you
guys can have it back.'"
released it ourselves and at a time when such things didn't happen we forged
through. Now twenty-five years later I find myself in the same situation. I made
a film that must be so out of step that people are either saying, 'I don't know
what this is' or 'It's got too much dialogue.' So history repeats itself."
the film's first betrayer was, as Rudolph calls it, "the enemy inside our
shell." Using a European distributor, who was at first supportive through
the first cut of the film, Rudolph found the tide turned when they "found
out if it had been a porno movie they could have sold it quicker so they treated
the film with such disdain and carelessness, like moving a piece of china with a
bulldozer, that it turned out to be a terrible situation."
were no screenings or anything until Darryl (Macdonald, director of The Seattle
International Film Festival) called about the festival and we decided to show it
up here," he tells me.
don't say this from bitterness," he reminds, "But I think this
business of movies has changed in the last year and a half. Once the only goal
we tried to reach was our own particular truth and the integrity of film in
order to be humbled by it instead of being arrogant and to try and do things
differently. Altman used to say, 'How can people wait in line to see pictures
they've already basically seen? Why are they so afraid of what they haven't
seen?' I find the mystery of film, the essence of it must be indestructible
because it's been under attack for a hundred years and never more so than
of the problem, he surmises, is the new "independent cinema" and what
it does - or does not - truly represent. "When the independent label came
up I knew it was dangerous, as are labels," he cautions. "I know the
spirit behind it but in fact, what it's allowed is too much success and it has
distributors are owned by the majors, though they pretend they're not, or they
posture as indie or have no money whatsoever. The best and worst thing that
happened recently was Sony Pictures Classics got the Ang Lee film (Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and it was such an enormous success that that's what
they all want."
why did it all change, Rudolph wonders; when was it that an audience, critics
and distributors could no longer surrender to the screen? "When did it
happen and why does everybody have a certain agenda, or, if it's not like
something else or it unfolds on its own terms it's not right, it's not a good
thing?" he asks.
his predominant worry, he's still cautiously optimistic that things will change.
"I think the apple cart is primed to be turned over, though I have no
illusions about my place. I'm just some guy connecting the dots. If you go back
and look at all the films I've made, they were either with a company just
starting out or the last film a company made before it went under." He
laughs and then reassesses the state of things with gravity.
has there been more encouragement to make films, what with digital and whatnot,
and yet there have never been so many snake oil salesmen out there. Right now
the cutting visual edge in filmmaking has never been so close to the comic book.
I mean, what is the difference between a Guy Ritchie film, a Sprite commercial,
a Dogme 95 movie or an MTV something? They all look the same, not
that it's bad - it's very thrilling - but that's where the energy has gone,
that's where the thought has gone." And, concludes Rudolph with a kind of
practiced wisdom that separates him from the need for speed, expensive special
effects and pat storylines, "it's not all that hard to do visually. What's
hard is to try to not do that and to do something else entirely."