Given that groundbreaking maverick director Robert Altman directed roughly forty feature films (along with dozens of TV projects) with a combined cast of hundreds of noteworthy actors, trying to encapsulate his entire career into a single documentary is a pretty much impossible task. Like one of his sprawling ensemble films like Nashville or Short Cuts, Altman’s career was a low key epic filled with diversions, poignant anecdotes, and a cast of thousands that added up to something truly unique. He was one of the most original and important filmmakers to ever come out of America, and yet few filmmakers have managed to recapture what made his work so singularly special since. His work and style were so distinct that no one could recreate it. Sure, there have been other films that use his multi-character tapestry style, yet none that quite captured his egalitarian approach. There’s simply no one else in the history of film quite like Altman and documentary filmmaker Ronn Mann’s ode to Altman can only hope to capture a sliver of what made the man so great.
Though there are many ways to try and summarize Altman’s life and career in a doc, Mann’s approach was probably the wisest. He lets the story spill out from Altman’s point of view. Mann filtered through hundreds of recorded interviews with Altman and hinged his movie around those clips. Since Altman could spin a yarn as well as anyone, letting him take center stage is a strong approach. It’s also a tricky one given that Altman wasn’t around to participate in Mann’s film. Instead he worked in close collaboration with Altman’s widow Kathryn and longtime producer Mathew Seig. Together, they give Mann a wealth of never-before-seen short films and behind-the-scenes footage from nearly every one of Altman’s films. Simply getting that glimpse into Altman and company at work is a wonderful gift to the director’s legion of fans. It’s all held together with some nice voice over narration by screenwriter Len Blum (Meatballs, Stripes, Beetoven’s 2nd) and plays as a loving history lesson.
The most fascinating moments in Mann’s doc come early, as he showcases some of Altman’s long lost TV directing work and short films. Seeing the experimental techniques that Altman used in TV dramas like Combat! show the director’s emerging style in transition, while the hilarious short films he made in private showcase his rebel wit in search of means of expression. (One short involves characters passing joints across absurd circumstances, while another is a dream sequence involving a man finding a bar in his pool. Both were made in the early 60s and long before Hollywood would even consider such subject matter.) Likewise, glimpses of Altman’s patented over-lapping dialogue recording style pop up in his early films like Countdown, and it’s undeniably amusing to see him experimenting with those techniques long before their time and then learning that he was promptly fired by studios for doing so.
By the time Mann actually gets into Altman’s iconic career, he’s forced to rush through every title to avoid an overwhelming running time for his doc. We see tantalizing glimpses behind the scenes of masterpieces like Nashville, California Split, and Popeye and hear about their impact briefly before rushing to the next movie. In a way, it’s an appropriate way to explore Altman’s career given that he committed fully to each of his films, but just as quickly diverted his attention to his next project. He often made multiple movies annually, even if each picture had a depth of quality and care that most filmmakers would require years to achieve. For Altman, the process and the people were as important as the final product.
Mann’s movie gives off that impression, but you can’t help but wish he’d linger a little longer on some titles. The cocaine-fueled insanity of the Popeye production would be enough to fill an entire feature doc on its own, but Mann rushes through it in a few minutes. Yet, the most frustrating aspect of the entire film is a stylistic choice that Mann hinged his entire structure on. Every few minutes, one of Altman’s many collaborators (Elliot Gould, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Lilly Tomlin, George Segal, Paul Thomas Anderson, and others) offer their definition for the word “Altmanesque.” Filmed against a stark black backdrop and directly addressing the camera, it’s an amusing little device with an endless stream of intriguing answers. The only problem is that we never get to hear any of them say anything else. Given how full of Altman anecdotes and insights each and every one of those people must be, there’s no denying how frustrating it is to see them contribute so little.
While Altman offers up a wonderful portrait of the iconic director that should serve as an ideal Altman 101 class for film buffs and students for years to come, it also feels like a mild missed opportunity. Mann was given extraordinary access to Altman’s archives and got time with almost every significant actor that the director ever worked with, yet all the film offers viewers is a mere overview of a massive career. Granted, that’s all that ever could have been achieved in a single film. I’m certain had the full interviews with the actors been used, Mann’s film would have stretched out to TV-miniseries length. The thing is that Robert Altman is worth a doc of that scale and scope. It’s hard to imagine that Mann didn’t shoot it before cutting his film down to a reasonable length. Hopefully at some point he’ll get a chance to expand this project. Altman is a sweet, nice, and insightful doc as is, but somewhere on a hard drive in Toronto Mann has the material for the ultimate and all-encompassing portrait of the great Robert Altman. Maybe one day we’ll get to see it. For now, this lovely little flick will do.