Ron Mann’sAltman is a stoic by-the-numbers documentary celebrating the films of the great director, but offering little insight into the man behind the lens.
Short Cutsby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
At a recent late-night screening of Robert Altman’s much revered classic The Long Goodbye in North East London, a fellow patron sheepishly mumbled “I loved that…but I’m not sure why”. As the relatively young audience filed out of the theatre this was the prevailing sentiment; a fleeting, transformative and wholly unique cinematic experience – or, quite ‘Altmanesque’. Exploring the many interpretations that this oft-used term presents, Ron Mann’s stoic documentary is a straight-laced account of Altman’s early days in television right up to his death in 2006. The film has a patent ‘officially endorsed by the Altman family’ feel to it – rightly celebrating his extraordinary oeuvre but disappointingly side-stepping meaningful insight into the man himself.
The documentary spans Robert Altman’s journey to auteurdom from his early days in television to his genre-busting years in filmmaking. Largely narrated by Robert Altman’s wife Kathryn, it also features bite-sized interviews from actors and directors ranging from Lily Tomlin to Bruce Willis and Paul Thomas Anderson.
In accepting his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2006, Robert Altman acknowledged the supporting role luck had had to play in his illustrious career. In reality, Altman was a brave and bullish visionary who forged his own luck, with a penchant to double-down as opposed to walking away from risk. Operating outside of the accepted studio boundaries, his self-belief was unrivaled in a system where to conform was to get funding for your picture. The brighter moments of a documentary single-minded in its motivation to celebrate the director come in the form of anecdotes from his wife Kathryn and from the director himself through stock footage interviews. The seemingly pre-rehearsed segments from former collaborators feel smug and unnatural, like a bludgeoning by over-glorification.
High points include Kathryn telling of a wedding anniversary funded entirely from the proceeds of a two hundred dollar bet on a 20/1 horse – Altman having bet the last of the family money on an outside bet. Another fascinating story comes from the man himself explaining how monster hit M*A*S*H went uncensored following guests of 20th Century Fox producer Richard Zanuck objecting to Zanuck’s assertion that the blood would have to come out. After watching the film, you’ll certainly have an appreciation for the impact the maverick director had, but you’ll be none the wiser as to the man he was, which ultimately, is the film’s biggest disappointment. His addiction to alcohol is touched upon (as is his absence from his children’s childhoods) for instance, but that’s all it is, touched upon.
Altman fans will enjoy the chronological retrospective on a career of brilliance and quiet bravado. A pioneer in every sense of the word, he was a swashbuckling cinematic rebel, his notorious aversion to conformism and studio interference inspiring and eminently commendable. Hopefully, it will inspire a new generation of cineastes to return to such classics as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short Cuts and 3 Women. But Mann’s documentary plays it safe, never flying too close to the sun, admirably celebrating a director without delving into his personal life. In this regard, perhaps one day we’ll get a bold and definitive Altmanesque chronicle of one of Hollywood’s most daring auteurs.
Altman is released on 3rd April 2015 in the UK