The films of Robert Altman breathed a certain kind of freedom. Not the American type of “Freedom,” though his movies were always very American. It was an artistic freedom, on one hand – to say, do and tell what he wished – and, on the other, an ability to extend that liberty to the actors on screen. There’s a loose, unwieldy quality to most if not all of Altman’s pictures (they were mostly improvised) that made them stranger-than-fiction – above a mere “representation” of the real world into a sphere of uninterrupted reality. They were tapestries of human behaviour.
You don’t see that in today’s cinema, and when you do it’s not done with the same level of authenticity, maturity and precision (oh, what Boyhood should have gleaned from Short Cuts or even Brewster McCloud!). Too many movies – whether independently made or straight from the maws of Hollywood – usually obsess over technical slickness, cool behaviour, and the noxious standards of “marketability.” Subtlety is, for the most part, out the window. Not only subtle, Altman’s films defied the woebegone conventions of Hollywood, and he made his movies uncompromisingly his way.
That is what Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann sets out to celebrate in Altman, his latest documentary that chronologically recounts the great man’s extraordinary career from cruddy TV movies to exceptional (and always personal) works of cinema. Mann structures the film around the question of “what is “Altmanesque,” posing it to close collaborators like Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Julianne Moore, Paul Thomas Anderson (etc.) and looking for a one-sentence response. The answers come mostly in platitudes like “fearless” and “inspiration,” but that simply reinforces the ineffable quality of Altman’s films.
It’s a clever approach to celebrity interviews, because it requires the interviewees to be concise, and not gush on about how great Altman is. The documentary then becomes less of a puff piece and more a 95-minute quest to pinpoint the summarizing effect of his oeuvre. That said, Mann’s matter-of-fact approach demands a viewer who knows and already appreciates Altman’s body of work. Otherwise, it’s hard to share an appreciation for the ambiguous term “Altmanesque” when you have little to no pre-existing knowledge of the man’s recurrent style and themes.
Because, like Hitchcock and Ford, Altman was an auteur: a director with a distinct vision and a visual footprint that was distinguishably his own. If the original material wasn’t his – like Popeye, The Long Goodbye, or Thieves Like Us – he made it his, which didn’t sit well with everybody – especially studio execs. Altman movies were a producer’s nightmare, because they weren’t seemingly about anything. They observed a series of interactions, sometimes connected by the experiences of a protagonist(s), that often went unresolved. His movies cohered according to the feelings they released, but that notion is not exactly box office heaven for a studio suit.
Using archival interviews with Altman himself, Mann’s documentary gets firsthand evidence of the maverick’s trials and tribulations in and out of the Hollywood system. But the Nashville director affirms that every movie he made he wanted to make. It was never one for him, one for them. It was also interesting to hear that Altman was most proud of Tanner ’88, his TV mockumentary series starring Michael Murphy as a fictional politician running for presidency. Altman called it “experimental television,” and it was the perfect prelude to the film that revitalized his career: The Player (which, funny enough, is one of my least favourites of his).
Altman doesn’t cover one specific era of its subject’s career, but looks at its entirety. Therefore, the documentary has a broad base and spreads its information out over a large scale. For a more detailed examination, one should read Mitchell Zuckoff’s Altman biography. Since Mann’s documentary is lean, it skims several chapters of the man’s life – particularly the New Hollywood era and his anti-war sentiments – that would have been fascinating topics. Instead, the documentary focuses on the up-and-down nature of Altman’s career and his constant clashing with the Hollywood machine. He was nominated 5 times for the Best Directing Oscar, but never won. It’s ironic though that he was awarded an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. He was anointed by the very system that tried to strike him down for years upon years.
Altman died in 2006 from leukaemia. He was in pre-production on what would have been his fortieth feature film. But he left behind a legacy of cinematic treasures that Mann celebrates with an equal amount of admiration and curiosity to learn more. In the documentary, Altman (in voiceover) compares filmmaking to the building of sandcastles. You spend all this time creating your masterpiece and then the tide of time comes along and sweeps it away. But he’s wrong: his movies still stand strong towering in the memory banks of time, and the history of his beloved art form.
Altman is a very good tribute to the great American maverick, though one's experience will certainly be heightened if they're already familiar with the Nashville director's body of work.