7/27/20: Life of Art and Other Things #poetry #essay #PoeticEssay #RobertAltman


7/27/20: Life of Art and Other Things #poetry #essay #PoeticEssay  #RobertAltman

Saw Ron Mann’s documentary, Altman, for the second time last Saturday

The first time I saw the movie it was on a double bill in Santa Monica

I was attempting to revive a career as a theatrical improviser

The documentary was on a double bill with Altman’s great film, Nashville

Christoph Waltz was sitting in our row, all alone

I was teaching at UIC at the time

and I was trying to reconnect with old friends and colleagues from my days at Second City

I went to a workshop — the leader said that I was a novice and a “lawyer” — an amateur who was just visiting

He criticized my constant talk of “art”

He said improvisation was a “craft”

He saw his work as a job

And he wasn’t very successful at it

He talked endlessly about how he regretted that he never auditioned for a job as a clown on a local TV children’s show

I always was so attentive to my own voice

that I didn’t understand what was going on around me

who I was with

what motivated them

I am a perpetual innocent

always having to figure things out

Sometimes it takes years to really know

It is painful and then joyful — every time

I’m a lot like Robert Altman

that’s why I watched the movie again

this time in my quarantine stance

no Santa Monica

just me and Paula and the recliner

In the quiet of the outer reaches of Hyde Park

the various regions of art

sunny and gray

months in a pandemic

two days in Santa Monica …

A participant in the workshop who was a show runner for a successful and awful situation comedy

about a crude and boorish father and his dim-witted family

criticized a piece that I had written for having “too many big words”

I once was attracted to a woman who wore Mickey Mouse decals on her jeans

but it was just lust

That piece Art Has Its Day in L. A. was the first emergence of my transformed more mature voice

The voice of the old improviser and blocked artist and telemarketer and mental patient and trial lawyer and professor

a voice uninterested in simple answers

a voice with eyes that looks and says what it sees

Altman looked and told people what he saw

Dissatisfied with episodic TV

because it wasn’t true

Sometimes I write something that hits the zeitgeist in some way

matches some general mood

and more people read it than usual

Sometimes I write something controversial

and more people read it than usual

The constant is what interests me

The voice that reconciles what was new and old in me

Understanding myself and coming to terms with the world

Each lost friend and field of activity is replaced by a new one

The doubt about money or popularity was important for a time

a turning of attention from one’s voice to other things

the creation of wounds to suture and heal

and transfigure into art

beyond clowns, sitcoms and cartoons

Blake, Melville, Altman, Me — acclaim …

and print shops, customs houses, obscure theaters, pandemic apartments

Art Has Its Day in L. A. (from Spring 2015)

Paula and I had an art filled day in Los Angeles yesterday. We saw the Turner exhibit at the Getty Museum and we saw Robert Altman’s masterpiece movie from the mid-70’s Nashville at the Aero revival house in Santa Monica.

L.A. is a city of grandiose intentions betrayed. It sprawls in unfinished disrepair. If a hoarder’s house became an urban landscape it would be Los Angeles. One seedy building of past or imagined grandeur after another passed by us as we drove the crowded, impatient and  uncivil streets and boulevards. Every edifice screamed I CAN MAKE A BUCK HERE! I CAN MAKE A BUCK HERE! L.A. is a sprawling drunk who believes he is sober. Its attempts at dignity are pathetic and comical. I really like it. Oh, the humanity!

And then there is the Getty. We park our hulking rent-a-car, a mid-size SUV. The fifteen dollars is all that we will need to spend for our entire time at the museum. This one’s on J. Paul Getty.

The Getty is located on a hill top. Visitors take a monorail from a valley to the pavilions. The hill is meticulously landscaped. The rail cars are spotless. The large crowd in our car is calm with happy and quiet anticipation. Evolved life reigns. Undenied animal natures gratefully subordinate themselves to the gods within. Not one shallow or restless breath is exhaled. The air and all minds present are clear. A community rises above its avarice and fear. The possible happens.  A first moment of sobriety.

Art need not be an escape—the cathedral that you are tossed to from the gritty sand storm battle of what is called living. But it is just that because we make it that way. We are all Angelinos. Philanthropy is civic-minded “charity” that bequeaths us momentary glimpses of our birthrights. Our moments of peace are gifts to us from the men like J. Paul Getty who fouled our air in the first place. We have turned essential life into a beggar. Education, health care, art, culture has a pledge drive. The idea is that market forces will create wealth and men of profit will build all the infrastructure we need to sustain it. Our human needs will be met indirectly once we attain our desire for profit. But many stretches of Los Angeles look as worn-out and deteriorated as the streets of the newly liberated republics of the former Communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe in the late 1980’s. Turner and Nashville know that the denial of life is motivated by something less obvious and simplistic than political and economic ideology. Ideologies are sideshow distractions from the essential nature of us all—useful tools in our continuing effort to avoid real thought.

We arrive at the top. Turner on loan from the Tate in London shows us how to be more effectively human. We have so much potential. Turner defies classification. Turner makes no accommodation for our acceptance or rejection. His paintings show a world with few boundaries—where one thing…a man, a whale, a mast of a ship…it doesn’t really matter…one thing at a time stands out in defined relief. The voice on the iPod guide quotes Henry David Thoreau. It doesn’t matter what you look at; what matters is what you see. Our world is as wise and clear and kind and good as we want to make it—our only limitation is the depth of our perception.

Nashville, a satire created in the 1970’s is timeless—with a message for any place and moment. Depth perception. The film’s central comment: authoritarianism is chaotic, ironically. The despotic promise of order from political leaders brings disorder. The narcissism of self-involvement is exploited by those who crave power. Almost no character listens. Almost every talks a lot most often when other characters are talking. Almost everyone is either onstage looking to be pleased by the audience’s approval or in the audience looking to be pleased by the performer’s flattery. The mass cruelly hurts itself in the ignorant pursuit of a non-existent power while the cunning manipulates it from a detached vantage point and dictates all its action. The mass is unaware of its lack of freedom until after a trauma near the end of the movie when it chooses the comfort of a life of denial of reality and a surrender of freedom and even self-interest for the delusion of non-existent pleasure and a good time. Nashville is Los Angeles is Chicago is America is us. The Getty shows us what real life could be attached to the lie that it can only come to us as a gift from the cunning detached voice of real power in Nashville. Turner shows us what freedom looks like for ourselves as individuals and by extension our communities. He looks where he pleases and really sees. As does Robert Altman and company in Nashville.

Art is mysticism plus craft. What do you see and what do you make of it? A painting? A movie? A monorail? A city? A world?

Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

Gore Vidal is most interested with the essay

So am I

Rosemary Harris, the actress, wore her own clothes in her mature career

and applied her own make-up

Same here — no costumes

no characters

no fictions

just essay

and poetry

the poetic essay

Robert Altman was told when he was a young man

that he was a good writer

He wrote a screenplay

It went nowhere

He decided to leave L.A. and go work in the New York Theater

He stopped in his hometown Kansas City

and stayed for a while

He got a job making industrial films

He learned a lot of craft

He eventually became an episodic TV director

and he subsequently became disenchanted and rebellious

He wanted the shows to be more real

He did great work

and got praised and fired for it

That’s how it goes

You do something well

and get thrown out of the tribe

and drawn into a new tribe

Altman got fired from directing a movie called Countdown 

because he wanted the actors to talk at the same time

Overlapping lines

The producer thought he was an amateur

Others admired the technique

He was offered the movie M*A*S*H

It was a smash hit

at a time when studios were giving creative control to the artists — the writers, directors and actors

Altman’s success with M*A*S*H led to several great art films

including McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville

Frank Sinatra singing That’s Life

a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king 

The world turned a little

The studios shifted in their attitude toward artists

and Altman was as innocent as I was during my weekend in Santa Monica

He made Popeye

Altman did his usual art

some things worked in the movie

some things were experiments which would lead to better work later

all was process

all was worthy

Popeye lost a lot of money

the opposite of what was expected

Altman was a failure

a has been

a cautionary tale


so he did little plays

some of which he changed into little independent movies

He kept going

A maverick

expressing his art

supporting his family

Many years later

a producer thought the maverick Altman would be a perfect choice to direct a scathing satire of Hollywood, The Player

Altman was on top again

Short Cuts, Gosford Park, The Prairie Home Companion


I’m like Altman

All artists are like Altman

7/26/20: The Different Ways to Talk #poetry #writing #entertainment #sales #thelaw #teaching #art

#entertainment — make them feel good

#sales — persuade them to do something

#thelaw — argue and advocate for or against them

#teaching — make them think

#art — the audience is not objectified. No “them”. The artist doesn’t perform, pretend, argue, advocate or persuade — not really, even if it sounds that way. The artist is pursuing …

I just write about what interests me — or more precisely what comes up. I don’t choose what I write about it. It chooses me. I don’t think about what interests the audience. I don’t care. I figure the people that want to read it will read it and those who don’t won’t. I also think you can go deeper on any topic and say something worthwhile. I try to never just comment on the level of a cable TV pundit. I am looking for connections, metaphors, trends … if I label something #commentary I might get a little more toward opinion — but I am going for more than opinion — I am stating my truth. The process involves more than stating a rational point of view. It’s much more personal and experiential than that.

An “art” audience and an “entertainment”,  “sales”, “law” or “teaching” audience are obtained in different ways. I’ve done all of these modes of talking, and they all share elements of craft. The differences are based on the orientation — the goal.

Art has an objectivity to it — the truth — limited of course by the artist’s personal point of view which is subjective. We are all the center of the universe and no one can stand simultaneously in the same place as someone else at the same time. Art is objective, but not absolute in its findings. It resembles science in that way. There is always more to find out, another angle to explore …

Entertainers market to get audiences, sales people call on prospects and leads, lawyers sue or defend when sued, and teachers recruit and admit students. An artist’s audience finds him. It is a mystery how true art engages the world, and how the world finds and engages true art. 

I know the world and art find each other … I’ve seen it happen, but I am not as clear on the process as I am on the other less evolved forms of talk.

I’ll keep you posted.

Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas

See — I’m like Altman … all artists are like Altman …

artists move and communicate and succeed and fail and it doesn’t matter

it doesn’t matter

Santa Monica dreaming

or reclusive in a pandemic

on a blog

or at the Oscars

In Altman’s acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar

he sounds a lot like a guy who makes industrial films in Kansas City

The heart can reveal itself in settings humble or grand

It hardly matters

Each rejection is the start of an embrace

The heart is an explorer

In art the persistent work is what matters

award winner or pariah

celebrated or reviled

pleasing the boss or enraging him

are other things …

Choosing that indescribable thing

that essence

and sticking with it

it always works out

and it always doesn’t.

Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas











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