Alan Rudolph, recently unretired film director and slept-on romantic of American movies, is speaking to me by phone from Bainbridge Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. The seaplanes are taking off, he says, and he’ll move if they get too noisy. His voice is an older man’s, reedy and sweetish with a California sound. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, never liked it all that much, took his first trip to the Pacific Northwest when he got his driver’s license. He’s made a home on Bainbridge Island (never Bainbridge; the “Island” is part of the name) since the late 1980s. “I wanted weather,” he explains. Which I imagine means drizzle, cloudy skies, and the October fog off the sound.
The occasion is “Alan Rudolph’s Everyday Lovers,” a two-week-long retrospective of his work that’s being held at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, and the American premiere of Ray Meets Helen, his first movie in 15 years, which reunites him with Keith Carradine, the star of many of his best films. “I know it’s gonna be a lot of body blows,” he jokes. “Popular taste and critical taste and what I do rarely seem to match up.” He chuckles slightly at the reception of the first movie he made with Carradine, Welcome To L.A., released in 1976 and, like most Rudolph films, something of a modern-day romantic fable. “I didn’t realize people could say things against you personally in print.”
It’s true that, apart from a cult following, Rudolph has never commanded the attention of the film world, and that his career has been uneven, sometimes mixing exquisite personal films with projects where he worked more as a hired gun. But at its best—as in Remember My Name (1978), Choose Me (1984), Trouble In Mind (1985), or The Moderns (1988)—an Alan Rudolph movie is like nothing else: equally plastic and sincere, operating at a level of stylization and pastiche that singles Rudolph out as the only homegrown Hollywood post-modernist of the 1970s generation. His art is liminal: settings that are somewhere between past and present, fantasy and reality; characters who are recently paroled, recently single, ex-something, or just passing through.
He refers to Welcome To L.A. as his debut feature, though it isn’t. Initially, he followed in the footsteps of his father, Oscar Rudolph, a prolific TV director who helmed three dozen episodes of the campy Adam West Batman. Then, after working his way up as a TV and film assistant director, Alan made his actual debut with 1972’s Premonition, a dirt-cheap hippie horror film (also the debut feature of the cinematographer John Bailey), which was followed by another exploitation flick, Nightmare Circus (a.k.a. Terror Circus, Barn Of The Naked Dead, or Caged Women II), in 1974. “I basically came from the crew,” says Rudolph. “And the only low budget movies I knew about were the Roger Corman thing. But I never took to violence.”
By which he presumably means the gruesome, visceral aspect of violence; as horror filmmaking, his first couple of features are less than credible, to put it mildly. But otherwise, threats, dark pasts, and crime are a part of Rudolph’s lovesick, film-noir-influenced palette, as much of a stylized expression of character as the nightclub lighting. And genre aside, Premonition (the better and more personal of the two films) quickly betrays itself as a Rudolph work, its depiction of hippie wanderlust romanticized with an earnestness rarely found in drive-in quickies. It’s the direction that’s awkward. As with a lot of the most interesting artists in film, Rudolph seemed to know what he wanted to make movies about before he knew how to make them.
Robert Altman was a mentor of sorts. (The Altman films Rudolph worked on—including The Long Goodbye, Nashville, and Buffalo Bill And The Indians—are also being shown as part of “Alan Rudolph’s Everyday Lovers.”) “I wanted to show I was groomed by Altman,” says Rudolph of Welcome To L.A., the first of five films that Altman produced for him. “And whatever was different between my film and his work was probably the difference between the two of us.” But in his own work, Rudolph took the basics of Altman’s heightened realism—the ensemble casts, the overlapping sound design, the zooms—and used them to create alternate realities of atmosphere, glister, and visual rhyme that owed more to the roundelays of Max Ophüls and the glow of classic Hollywood.
With the notable exception of the 1994 Dorothy Parker biopic Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle—another Altman production that ranks as the most realistic of Rudolph’s top-tier films—his subject matter has never been Altman-esque. His stories have qualities of cycles, circles, and ironic reversals, whether its couples trading partners or outright transformations: an ordinary Joe from the sticks refashioning himself into a futuristic urban criminal in Trouble In Mind; a down-on-his-luck artist creating forgeries, and thereby rediscovering his art, in The Moderns. The latter is my favorite of Rudolph’s movies, an intoxicating period piece set in Paris in the 1920s that moves dreamily around themes of deception, money, and artistic fraud. “A Paris of the mind,” he notes, pointing out that the movie was actually shot in Quebec. “It was a complete metaphor for the movie business.”
Rudolph had pitched The Moderns to Altman in the mid-1970s, had it rejected. It would become his evolving passion project. “Paris in the ’20s captivated me as a place where it seemed like it all changed.” Then he adds, with dramatic emphasis: “But it didn’t really. In the art world, the real explosion happened a decade or two earlier. Paris in the ’20s, though, seemed to be the place it was accepted that modernity had occurred.” There’s that transitional, phasing quality of Rudolph’s work. Limbo is where his stories locate tension and romance, often involving people who seem to be between identities.
Their backdrops are expressively shifty, with the most obvious example being Rain City, the fantasy stand-in for Seattle in Trouble In Mind, an extremely stylized retro metropolis that could also be a dystopian future; the specter of fascism haunts its poeticized, hard-boiled 1940s imagery. Rudolph would be the first to admit that his films are artificial. “The setting is fictional, so that if you’re looking for something to hold on to, you have to go the ultimate mystery of human emotion, which is accurate. That’s where the documentary is.” The answer is somewhat like a Rudolph film: earnest, idealistic, and, when it all comes down to it, probably true.