When Robert Altman died in 2006, at the age of 81, he was location scouting for what would have been his 40th feature film. That’s a prodigious canon by anyone’s standards, but Altman didn’t even start directing for the big screen until he was a grey-bearded fortysomething with many, many hours of television under his belt. It’s inevitable, then, that any two-hour survey of his career will only skim like a pebble over its surface. But that thought doesn’t make “Altman” any less frustrating. The best thing about Ron Mann’s affectionate documentary is that it mentions so many fascinating incidents in passing. The worst thing is that it examines so few of them in detail.
To begin with, there’s Altman’s stint as a bomber pilot in the second world war. After that, he had a stab at being a Hollywood screenwriter, before learning his trade as a director by making Midwestern industrial films with such tantalising titles as “How to Run a Filling Station”. He went on to become one of television’s busiest directors, but even when he was knocking out “Bonanza” and “Peter Gunn” on a weekly basis, he was pushing against the medium’s boundaries, upsetting his bosses by exploring a soldier’s post-traumatic stress disorder in “Combat!”, and fighting to cast a black actor in an episode of “Kraft Mystery Theater”. When his paymasters refused, Altman declared that Kraft’s programmes were as bland as its cheese. He could never cross a bridge, it seemed, without reaching for a petrol can and a box of matches.
Making the jump from television to film, he was fired from his first project, “Countdown”, in 1968 because he had two actors talking at once—an early example of his trademark overlapping dialogue. But Altman was just getting started. With the likes of “M*A*S*H”, “The Long Goodbye” and “Nashville”, he established his own brand of rambling, semi-improvised, left-leaning ensemble comedy dramas, and he stuck to it, whether the studios wanted him to or not. When he was persona non grata in Hollywood after “Popeye” flopped in 1980, he continued directing for television and theatre. Most ingeniously of all, he turned a teaching job at the University of Michigan into an opportunity to make a film of his own, “Secret Honor”, with the students as his crew. If he were alive today, he would be raising funds via Kickstarter.
Narrated by his widow and sons, and making extensive use of the family’s playful home movies, “Altman” paints a fond picture of an avuncular, unpretentious grafter who loved collaborating with actors even more than he loved a drink-fuelled party. But it’s a fuzzy picture that never brings his psyche or his working methods into focus. How, for instance, was he affected by his bombing missions? What did he learn from his industrial films and his television assignments? Who influenced him? How did he come up with the idea of recording several simultaneous conversations on a film set with radio microphones? And why was it that some of his films were so much better than others? “Altman” states that his critical ups and downs were a result of the public’s fickleness, rather than the quality of his work—a debatable assertion, to say the least. It also implies that he enjoyed an unbroken run of acclaim after he returned to Hollywood favour with “The Player” in 1992; in fact, two of his subsequent films, “Pret-a-Porter” and “Dr T. & The Women”, drew some of the worst reviews in a career that wasn’t short of them.
Given the involvement of Altman's family, it’s understandable that the documentary should view him through a rosy haze: his gambling habit and his first two marriages are barely glimpsed. But this soft-focus approach feels like a betrayal of the director’s uncompromising principles. The film’s boldest conceit is to line up his most high-profile actors, such as Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis, Elliott Gould, and to ask them only one question: how would they define Altmanesque? Their answers are unhelpfully vague. Lyle Lovett says, “Masterful storytelling.” Robin Williams says, “Expect the unexpected.” But a reasonable definition of Altmanesque does emerge over the course of the documentary. On a practical level, it’s about large casts, off-the-cuff dialogue, and criss-crossing storylines. But, more conceptually, it’s about being daringly experimental in the pursuit of truth. “Altman”, on the other hand, is the cinematic equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. As engaging as it is, it could hardly be less Altmanesque.
Altman British release, April 3rd