Sandcastles, Short Cuts, and the persistent pleasures of painting

The best part of this year’s Oscars telecast was the presentation of the honorary statue to Robert Altman. The set up was astonishing. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin read from very complicated cue cards that grew from a session of improvisation. It was like no other Oscar introduction in my experience — a tumble of thoughts, emotions, jokes and tributes all compressed in a manner that exactly reflected Mr. Altman’s style.

Robert Altman’s acceptance speech was scripted, but I found it very moving. In it, he talked about filmmaking being like building sandcastles and that he was very proud to have been involved in making 40 of these beautiful creations. Films are like sandcastles because film is a time-based medium and as such only exists while being viewed.

Mr. Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts is one of my all-time favorite movies, and as Adriana will attest, I don’t particularly like movies. But Short Cuts is different. Its narrative is much more complicated than most films and its use of random connectivity and coincidence is interesting. It’s somewhat like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia but less sentimental, more secular. I first saw the film on my 26th birthday, November 17th, 1993, having moved to New York two months earlier. I watched it three or four times more in theatrical release and have seen it on television another three or four times.

I distinctly remember the third time I saw the film. I was in graduate school and coming to terms with painting’s place in the world. Short Cuts seemed to be everything I wanted my work to be, and a whole lot more. It moved! It talked! It literally twinkled in the dark! What was the point of laboring over hand-made static images in the face of such awesome technology? But then it hit me.

Up on the screen appeared a perfect image of a parking lot. Dark, empty, mysterious and suggestive. This voice welled up in me. “Wait!” I wanted to scream. “Stop the projector! Let’s just look at THAT! Hold that image there for a few minutes!” But of course in the same time those thoughts formed in my head the movie had moved on. That’s what the director means by “sandcastles.”

In that moment, my question about the continued relevance of painting came to an end. Painting continues, and probably always will, because it doesn’t change. Static images stand as markers speaking to us from the past and as objects of wonder to be reinvented by people yet to come. These magic rectangles were the planet’s first movies, ways of understanding the world and one’s place in it. And unlike all the techno gadgetry that makes contemporary life so compelling they always work, they’re always on. They don’t require special lighting or popcorn or Panavision projectors. Just an eye and the sun.

Painting of course has lost its cultural supremacy. It has become, as Jerry Saltz put it, “a thing unto itself.” Which is fine. It is a practice for loners, slight misanthropes, and people who want things their own way. Industrial film is a collaborative art form, and at times very fine one. In one of the post-Oscar® roundups someone noted that Mr. Altman had once said: “Admire me not for how I succeed and not for how ‘good’ my films are, but for the fact that I keep going back and jumping off the cliff.”

That is an artist.

4 responses to “Sandcastles, Short Cuts, and the persistent pleasures of painting”

  1. G-Lock says:

    Lane, you had at me at “Short Cuts.” One of the most engrossing movies. The end is so haunting and always leaves me frustrated. What a cast! What a script! What direction! (From the same guy who did “Popeye,” no less!) All of Altman’s films in that vein – “Gosford Park,” “Nashville,” “The Player” – are layered and authentic. Thanks for spotlighting this oft-overlooked gem. Plus: Julianne Moore pantless!

  2. Lane says:

    Oh yeah the Julianne Moore scene. It’s so funny how it has a ring of authentic domestic life. We all see our partners pantsless just talking about laundry or doing thier nails or stuff so that part is interesting in a “Sopranos” kind of way. But the I just love what she says. And that the conversation involves “art talk”. “We were talking about this painter Larry Rivers and then . . . ‘

  3. Dave says:

    I took Altman’s thing about making movies being like making sandcastles to mean that movies lose cultural significance quickly: they get released, get seen, get talked about (if they’re lucky), and then hang around in some video limbo for a few decades at best. The best paintings do better than that. The best movies might, too.

    But I think your interpretation might be the right one, and anyway it’s provocative.

  4. bryan says:

    robert altman, RIP (1925-2006)