Director: Ron Mann
Cast: Robert Altman, Kathryn Reed, Lily Tomlin, Julianne Moore, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Paul Thomas Anderson
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Produced in close collaboration with Robert Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman (who frequently serves as narrator), Rom Mann’s documentary is a thoroughly entertaining portrait of one of cinema’s truly great directors. As such, it’s a treat for both aficionados and newcomers alike.
The movie is essentially a luxurious trawl through the director’s life and career, illustrated with a wealth of fascinating archive material that includes extensive clips from his films, family photos, unreleased shorts, behind the scenes footage, home movies, family photographs and several filmed interviews with the man himself, culled from TV programmes, press conferences and audience Q&As.
Mann has also lined up a number of Altman’s most famous collaborators, such as Elliott Gould, James Caan, Julianne Moore and Bruce Willis, but rather squanders the opportunity by only asking what the word “Altmanesque” means to them. Unfortunately, perhaps as a result of being put on the spot, no one has that good an answer, so this structural gimmick falls a bit flat, although we defy you not to get a bit misty-eyed when Robin Williams pops up.
Though the film leaves out some of Altman’s more controversial aspects, such as his political activism, it provides a comprehensive overview of his career, beginning with his stint as a WWII fighter pilot, his early work as an industrial filmmaker in Kansas City, a couple of story credits in film noir movies, his extensive TV work (which began after Hitchcock hand-picked him for Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and initial filmmaking set-backs (such as getting fired from the editing of moon race pic Countdown) before his career took off with the critical and commercial success of M*A*S*H in 1970. At that point, Altman was essentially given free reign to make the films he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them, becoming a figurehead for 1970s auteurist cinema, with films like McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville and The Long Goodbye.
Mann highlights Altman’s important contributions to cinema, most notably his revolutionary and naturalistic approach to the recording and direction of dialogue – amusingly, he was fired from Countdown for having the actors speak over each other, which is ironic, given that over-lapping dialogue became one of the signature elements of his films. Altman talks about his love of actors and his fondness for large ensemble casts (another defining element), while the film also touches on his ground-breaking work on the TV series Tanner ’88, arguably one of the key fore-runners of episodic television today.
Admittedly, the film is largely hagiographic in nature (Altman only acknowledges the catastrophic failure of Popeye, while other terrible films like Quintet, Dr T and the Women and Pret-a-Porter are quickly brushed over), but that is perhaps understandable, given the close collaboration with Altman’s family and friends. The upside is that the film is also packed full of terrific anecdotes, such as Kathryn’s delightful account of their initial flirtation when they met during the filming of an episode of Whirlybirds: “How are your morals?” “A little shaky…”
If you’ve never seen a Robert Altman film before (or, indeed, if you’ve only seen one of the rubbish ones), then Ron Mann’s engaging and affectionate documentary will make you want to track down and devour his entire filmography. Yes, even the rubbish ones.