Directed by: Ron Mann.
The problem with documentaries about filmmakers – especially one with as many films on their resume as Robert Altman –is that time constraints mean that the film can never really go in depth on anything that the filmmaker has done. In recent months, I have watched Milius – about John Milius – and Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures – and they had the same problem that Rob Mann’s Altman does – there just isn’t time to give the subject the respect it deserves. These documentaries don’t seem to be able to answer the very simple question of who the film is being made for – fans of Altman probably won’t get much new from the documentary, and if you’re not a fan of Robert Altman, why the hell are you watching a documentary about him? I’m not saying that Altman is a bad documentary – it isn’t. But it is rather lightweight, and barely skims the surface on the career of one of the greatest American directors in history.
Robert Altman had an interesting career – starting in the 1950s directing industrial films, before moving onto episodic television through most of the 1960s. But Altman was always an artist – and he wanted to do things his way, and he eventually insulted some of the people he worked for and they were not pleased. He started directing movies – and soon the same thing happened once again. He was fired from his first studio film – Countdown (1967) – because the head of the studio saw the dailies and thought Altman was incompetent – the moron was having actors speak at the same time! This would of course become one of Altman’s trademarks. In 1970, Altman was able to make MASH – the way he wanted to – and it became a huge hit, which bought him some freedom for a while. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, he made some of the best, most original films in what has become known as the Golden Age of America movies – McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), Nashville (1975) and 3 Women (1977) are just a few of my personal favorites from this period. And then, as he had done in the past, he burned some bridges. He had a few flops – culminating in 1980’s Popeye – and he couldn’t get hired in Hollywood. Throughout the 1980s he worked in theater, TV and some indie films – before returning to Hollywood with 1992’s The Player. That film was a success, and he continued to make the films he wanted to make for the rest of his life – right up to A Prairie Home Companion in 2006.
This is basically what the movie covers. Because Altman has a resume that included 39 films (he was in preproduction on his 40th when he died) and more TV directing credits, no one film gets anything like an in depth look in this doc. Director Mann has secured interviews with many of Altman’s actors and family – but he basically asks each of them just a single question: What does Altman-esque mean to you? – and getting a different answer from anyone. The point of this is clear – that Altman had such a wide range of films, in many different genres, that he cannot be easily pigeonholed – even if for the most part, you can always tell an Altman film from everyone’s else’s.
The film covers what you would expect it to. It is a safe documentary – and a loving tribute to the filmmaker, and to the man himself. I enjoyed the movie while it was running – and it has certainly made me want to go back and revisit several of the films featured. But I cannot help but think of the film as little more than a high quality DVD extra. It’s interesting – I’m just not sure it’s interesting enough.