"Movies," says film director Robert Altman, "are about dead." This is delivered matter-of-factly on the night of his cable television directorial debut as he slides into the corner of an American Film Institute reception seeking a little escape and a drink from the bartender.

"At least, in the hands they're in now," he continues about movies. "Accountants, corporate executives. Look at what they're doing: 'Vice Squad,' 'Death Wish II,' 'How to Kill a Whore,' 'How to--' It's unbelievable."

Around him, on a balcony overlooking the Kennedy Center Grand Foyer, swirled local filmmakers, local arts honchos (like WETA president and general manager Ward Chamberlin, AFI director Jean Firstenberg, AFI chairman George Stevens, and a sprinkling of the ABC executives who produced Altman's first cable venture for ABC Video Enterprises Inc.

"I haven't seen a movie in a year," Altman said. And he doesn't miss them. "Well, I make these," he said, referring to the two one-act plays, "Rattlesnake in a Cooler" and "Precious Blood," by Frank South (also at the reception last night), which he directed off-Broadway and then for cable, "and look at them."

Why is he doing cable?

"I was invited to," he said.

"I asked him," said Mary Ann Tighe, an ABC vice president and a former deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. "I saw the plays in a theater--St. Clements in New York. I was really moved by them. Bob was in the back of the theater, pacing back and forth. I went back and introduced myself and said, 'We want you to do this for cable.' He said he'd think about it. Then he came back and said yes."

What last night's group saw, after the reception in honor of Altman, was "Rattlesnake in a Cooler"--a riveting, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic dramatic monologue, starring Leo Burmester--which premieres March 14 on ABC cable.

"I hope there's as many people in my theater in New York tonight," Altman said to the audience in the AFI theater before the screening. (Altman also has a play running on Broadway--"Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"--"which got slaughtered by the critics," he said at the reception, "but the audience loves it.") "To me what you're going to see is no different from what I've done--taking content, applying style to it, and using actors to transmit it." But he allowed that he was still learning about how to work with cable television. "This is an experimental night," he said. "I mean, I'm going to sit in the back and count walkouts."

There didn't seem to be many to count. There were mainly handshakes and congratulations after it was over.

He has plans to do the David Rabe play, "Streamers," for cable, he said, and make a movie "in a year or two."