Robert Altman’s not just working at his talent’s peak now; he isn’t just putting together movies better than any director’s ever done. It’s as if he’s trashed the entire form. By junking the LA hacks’ formulas, and the Europeans’, he’s reinvented movies at some new level, so that the word “movie” ‘s relevant now only when it’s preceded by the word “Altman.” In St. Pete, we’re at a convention of department-stores’ Santas in St. Petersburg, Florida—seniorsville at its sappiest and most brutal. The picture’s knockout. There’s nothing the matter with it. It’s Altman’s farewell to movies, with their Esperanto sensibilities, their bogus art and darling “actors.” It’s as if the whole sanctimonious-aesthete-in-tinsel-land scene bombed out ten years ago, and he’s the only one who’s noticed, or who’s cared.
He’s been assembling a repertory company of Santas for this picture, and it’s their movie. They’re knockouts. These squalid duffers’re the sexiest men in pictures right now. Redford doesn’t have their gutter appeal; neither does Newman, who’s a fop, or Burt Reynolds, who’s a mincing synthetic stud. There’s always been something tony and fake about screen actors’ erotic energy; women’ve sensed they were somehow playing a part. The Santas are a jazzy gang of tacky geezers, the kind of men who’d really paw you, not just your ordinary oversalaried, swanked-up stars. They’re joke stars. It’s as if they’re wacked out on some cinema festival they’d gone to with discount oldsters’ tickets. Altman didn’t pay them anything. He didn’t pay technical people, either; he let me cut the picture. Paramount’s not willing to release it in time for Christmas. They’re not unaware; they sense that if St. Pete‘s ever shown, Altman’ll’ve sent moviemaking as we’ve known it down the tubes.