Director: Ron Mann
Cast: Robert Altman, Sally Kellerman, Bruce Willis, Elliot Gould, James Caan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Julianne Moore
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: April 3rd
It’s irresistible to compare the subject of a documentary to the documentary itself. For example, Altman (the film) doesn’t quite do justice to Altman (the man), as the film is many things that the man was not: fawning, conventional and dishonest.
However, Altman (the man) is such a fascinating subject that – despite its best efforts – Altman (the film) can’t help but be watchable, engaging and informative.
The documentary follows the life of the director from his early days as a rebellious, prolific TV director to his patchy but often incredible career as a rebellious, prolific filmmaker. Director Ron Mann has enviable access to hectares of Altman interview footage, film clips (including obscure short and home movies) and interviews with actors who’ve appeared in Altman films.
Altman loved actors, and when he and his cast weren’t at each other’s throats, they often loved him back. So it feels slightly wasteful to have a galaxy of star contributors agree to interview, only to ask them all one question: “Define ‘Altmanesque’”. Sally Kellerman for instance, describes it as “burning his bridges”.
The film is more successful when simply playing interviews and telling old stories. For instance, Altman was fired from an early gig for having overlapping dialogue, which would later become a trademark. There’s a fun running gag of executives being out of town while Altman is filming – it happened with at least three of his films (if not more). Altman often filmed in hard-to-reach locations partly because it would be awkward for producers to reach him, which explains why one of his films – Images – was shot in rural Wicklow.
It’s also a treat to see the man discuss some of his best-known films, like Nashville, McCabe and Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H*. Since the latter was made at the same time as numerous other war movies, it was filmed under the (ahem) radar.
It made me really want to re-watch many of his films, especially The Player, even though its satire is out of date now. The famous scenes with ridiculous movie pitches feel like hopeful fantasising, as now producers are more interested in remakes, reboots and expanded franchise universes than even the shlockiest original ideas.
While it’s fun to reminisce about his incredible work, at the same time, it’s a horrible feeling watching a documentary and sensing that you’re not being told the whole truth. If it’s incomplete and debatable to omit all of the stories about Altman’s legendary temper and difficulty, it’s downright disingenuous to imply that films like Dr T and the Women were critically acclaimed.
Indeed, it’s ironic that this documentary is essentially An Altman for All Seasons, because the man himself seemed to care little for what people thought of him – not his cast, not the money men, and sometimes not even his family, who he neglected for months at a time while he was working. Part of Altman’s appeal is that he did whatever he wanted, which led to innovative, distinctive films that will outlive the late director by decades, if not centuries.
Altman (the film) is a sugary tribute to a man of many flavours.