As one of the key directors operating in the ‘New Hollywood’ era, it’s interesting to note that Robert Altman was actually an old hand at directing, having cut his teeth on American TV series for many years before making M*A*S*H in 1970. Here was a guy with an aesthetic style of his own, backed up by a bloody-minded determination and an older head on his shoulders than the whizz kids of the day; Lucas, Coppola and Scorsese. Altman was 45 when M*A*S*H made his name and fortune, but he lived many lifetimes in a 40 year film career where he averaged a film a year.
Ron Mann’s documentary is an affectionate tribute to the man and his career, portraying him as a maverick filmmaker. Altman’s family gave Mann full access to the archives and first hand accounts but through this endorsement it’s lacking some of the bite that you may have expected from Peter Biskind’s blistering account in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But there’s still plenty to enjoy. Mann takes us chronologically through Altman’s career, from his modest start in 1950’s TV through the unprecedented success of M*A*S*H and an untarnished run in the 1970’s, before the failure of Popeye created a bump in the road. The film then takes us through the various success and failures of his career ever since. Mann rightly gives focus to the technical innovations that informed his work, namely the use of overlapping dialogue and using a roving camera style to create a more natural feel.
Appropriately, the film lets the famously outspoken man himself do the talking, utilising a vast back catalogue of interviews and talk-show snippets from various eras of his long career. In these, you get a glimpse of a big-hearted guy who was loved by his actors for the freedom he gave them to create rounded and largely improvised performances. In a bittersweet note, his family openly acknowledges that his ‘film family’ were of greater importance than his own flesh and blood. However, the hiring of his son to compose the theme for his debut feature Suicide is Painless tied his professional and personal life together and led to a hit that allowed the teenager to make out like a bandit.
In the vein of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Mann opens the film with the term ‘Altman-eqsue’, complete with a dictionary definition. To punctuate each chapter, he brings in a talking head from each stage of the director’s career, asking them to define the meaning of this term. It’s an endearing technique that gives opportunity for an array of famous faces to pay tribute, from Elliot Gould through Bruce Willis (“Altman-esque means kicking Hollywood’s ass”), Paul Thomas Anderson and, poignantly, the late Robin Williams. Robert Altman was on a location scout for what would have been his 40th film when ill health finally took hold and stopped him in his tracks. At least with this release, with the help of the man’s family and a documentary filmmaker, he finally achieved the number of features he had been working towards.
Words> Roy Swansborough